So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.
The airwaves and tellywaves are already packed with pundits declaring how the assassination of bin Laden strikes a death knell for Al-Qaeda/makes little difference to jihadism (delete as appropriate according to your political persuasion/professional reliance on a continued terrorist threat). These are just guesses; no one really knows what the result will be.
It’s true that the new Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, doesn’t possess the charisma or wide appeal of bin Laden, while information gathered from the site of bin Laden’s assassination will aid further operations against Al-Qaeda. There has already been a steady degradation of Al-Qaeda’s higher echelons over recent years through the sporadic violence of drone attacks in Pakistan. These deaths have included bomb makers, chemical experts, ideologues, Al-Qaeda’s then third-in-command Abu Hamza Rabia, financial chappy and subsequent third-in-command Saeed al-Masri and jihadist TV personality Abu Laith al-Libi. Largely as a result of this, it has become more difficult for Al-Qaeda to operate — their communications have had to be downgraded to manual couriers in many instances. As a result, there have been relatively few attacks directly attributable to the Al-Qaeda ‘core’. In fact, there have been no attacks claimed by or attributed to Al-Qaeda since December 2009.
But this hasn’t stopped the increase in activity in Al-Qaeda affiliates, particularly Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Pakistani jihadist groups have also been livelier over the past few years. Arguably, Al-Qaeda doesn’t need to launch attacks itself, it just needs to be used as an inspiration, a brand, an idea. One theory espoused by jihadist writer Abu Musab al-Suri’s pithy slogan is that Al-Qaeda is more important as “nizam, la tanzim”: a system, not an organisation. According to this concept, Al-Qaeda as a group doesn’t matter, Al-Qaeda as an idea that can percolate down to internet jihadists and affiliated groups worldwide does.
Bin Laden’s death is a PR coup for the Obama administration, the more so because the president’s speech lacked the demagoguery and triumphalism of the Bush administration’s tasteless announcements of supposed military victories. (Remember this one?) In the theatre of psychological operations, the images of a dead bin Laden will reassure Americans, demoralise potential extremists but radicalise others. The president will also be very pleased that the 10th anniversary of September 11th won’t pass with bin Laden still at large.
In a sense, the ‘war on terrorism’ (or Long War or whatever the devil you want to call the current US foreign policy focus on asymmetrical threats) is a war of ideas. To prevent further attacks on US and Western interests, they need to delegitimise the concept of jihadist extremism and deter potential recruits from signing up to the ideology. Osama bin Laden’s death might help in that fight, but it is just one facet of a far broader challenge.
Far more effective in undermining support for radical Islamist movements would be a shift in US policy towards Israel, a removal of US troops from Iraq and an end to support for repressive Arab regimes. In fact, the Arab spring may do more to undermine Islamist extremism than any targeted decapitation operations as it encourages pluralist democratisation around the Middle East, providing an outlet for political frustrations that could otherwise metamorphose into violence.
One final point of interest: the DLR wonders whether the killing of bin Laden, if it leads to a continued dismantling of Al-Qaeda, may mark something of a turning point in the theme of US foreign policy. The last decade has seen an explosion of academic and policy interest in terrorism and aysmmetrical threats. In the absence of a credible state-based threat and with the perception of an immediate non-state threat, foreign policy has concentrated almost solely on eliminating terrorist groups. Now, if the US public starts to feel safer and the perception of non-state threat dies down, there could be a gradual shift towards the more traditional idea of competition among states. And it looks like China will be the main focus of Washington’s attention in this new policy paradigm.