The death of Osama bin Laden begs the question whether the terrorist organization that he created remains a threat to the United States if not the world at large. Without its charismatic leader, does Al Qaeda still matter?
Both the Obama Administration and terrorism experts are cautious. They know that the killing of bin Laden at the hands of American special forces is likely provoke a violent response. Al Qaeda has to prove that it can survive the demise of its founder.
Bin Laden, moreover, hasn’t played a key strategic role in the organization for many years. Being America’s most wanted terrorist made it impossible for him to effectively orchestrate another attack after 9/11. The consensus among defense and foreign policy analyst as reported by The New York Times, is that bin Laden’s death does not “end the threat from an increasingly potent and self reliant string of regional Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Yemen or from a self radicalized vanguard here at home.”
There are several loosely affiliated terrorist groups around the Muslim world claiming to be part of Al Qaeda, notably in the Maghreb and Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been the most successful of these organizations as it attempted several attacks against Western targets, all of which were foiled. Terrorist activity in West Africa goes mostly unreported in international media and may actually have less to do with religious fanaticism than regional and tribal disputes. The same is true for the insurgency along Pakistan’s western frontier where bin Laden was long presumed to be hiding.
What made bin Laden successful — and his death such a devastating blow to the organization — was his ability to rally dissatisfied and estranged young Muslims everywhere to a cause. “Al Qaeda was an idea and an ideology, symbolized by an extremely charismatic figure in Osama bin Laden,” writes Fareed Zakaria.
Bin Laden was this Saudi prince like figure who had gone into the mountains of Afghanistan forsaking the riches of a multibillion dollar fortune, fought against the Soviets, demonstrated personal bravery and then crafted a seductive message about Islam and Islamic extremism as a path to destroy the corrupt regimes of the Middle East.
Without its fountainhead, Al Qaeda is likely to lose part of its appeal as well as sponsorship.
What is more, the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and other authoritarian Arab regimes have undermined part of Al Qaeda’s rationale. “Al Qaeda existed because bin Laden argued that the regimes of the Arab world were dictatorial and oppressive,” according to Zakaria.
He argued that the United States were supporting those regimes and, as a result, Muslims had to engage in terrorism against the United States and those regimes. He claimed that the only way to achieve change was through violence, terrorism and Islamic extremism.
The rioters and protesters of the “Arab Spring” proved him wrong. They managed to bring down Hosni Mubarak, a stalwart American ally, almost without violence — let alone terrorism. In very few instances has Islamism been part of the anti-government protests that also swept Bahrain, Jordan and Libya. The people there want jobs, not sharia.
The death of bin Laden may not discourage a generation of freelance terrorists from inflicting serious harm. But the central organizing ideology that presented an existential seduction to the Muslim world as well as an existential threat to the West is probably damaged beyond repair.