Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda and bin Laden

We can safely say 2011 has not been good for al-Qaeda (AQ). First, AQ witnessed the people-power movements throughout the Middle East, which have damaged the organization’s credibility and relevancy on a number of levels. Let us look at some examples. These pro-democracy uprisings showed that Muslims prefer to live in freedom rather than in a harshly repressive politico-religious straightjacket. Egypt and Tunisia debunked the AQ-propagated myth that political change can only occur through violence. Moreover, the uprisings are the biggest series of events in the region in decades, yet AQ was only an observer, a bystander.  It contributed nothing to the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Even worse, the leaders of AQ did not foresee the uprisings nor were they prepared to address them. The best AQ could offer has been a few dated, rambling and incoherent statements that appeared to be composed before the fall of Mubarak.

And now, with the fall of bin Laden, AQ has suffered another major blow.  Sure, as Yohanes has correctly pointed out, bin Laden has farmed out an increasing number of roles and responsibilities to subordinates over the last few years, which suggests that he probably was not in charge of AQ’s daily political, financial, and tactical plans at the time of his death. This observation should not lead us to underestimate the meaning of bin Laden to AQ. He is irreplaceable. Bin Laden had the skill and charisma to recruit people into the organization and inspire his followers into committing violence and destruction.  Plus, under bin Laden, AQ popularized suicide terrorism, which is the ultimate form of loyalty and sacrifice to the organization and to Osama himself.  Additionally, I question whether any potential replacement to bin Laden possesses his ambition and his ability to think strategically. These characteristics are not easy to find in people.      
The death of bin Laden leaves AQ a demoralized, insecure organization. Certainly, if only for symbolic reasons, it is tough for a group to lose its founder and leader. But its members—no matter how high or low in AQ’s hierarchy—now know with certainty that they are not safe or free from the long arm of America’s military forces.  As long as bin Laden was alive and on the run, AQ members could delude themselves into thinking that their crimes were free from punishment. Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special forces punctures that idea.  And the so-called “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered at the scene of the firefight only places the lives of more and more AQ members, including Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ’s no. 2 man and likely successor to bin Laden), in extreme peril.
But even before this calendar year, trends were not working in AQ’s favor.  On the one hand, AQ badly miscalculated America’s response to 9/11. According to terrorism expert Peter Bergen (one of only a few Westerners to interview bin Laden on multiple occasions), bin Laden viewed the U.S. response to the embassy bombings in 1998, which consisted of the Clinton administration lobbing a few missiles in Sudan, as a likely sign of how American would respond to the 9/11 attacks. In short, he anticipated a weak and half-hearted response from the U.S. Instead, what he and AQ got were sweeping anti-terror measures that included a massive military occupation of two countries, enhanced intelligence gathering mechanisms, widespread freezing of AQ assets, and greater diplomatic efforts to bring other countries into the fight against terrorism.  
On the other hand, AQ badly overreacted to America’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. By ordering indiscriminate and lethal bombings in both countries, AQ killed not only innocent Westerners but also innocent Muslims. As a result, it began to be awfully difficult for AQ to situate itself as the vanguard of Muslims worldwide. More and more Muslims saw AQ for what it was: a violent and self-interested group of Islamic fanatics. Over the course of about seven years, from 9/11 to 2008, Muslim support and approval for AQ significantly declined in almost every Muslim country.  AQ could no longer claim to speak and act for Muslims. Indeed, AQ became a pariah in Muslim countries.
So where does all of this leave AQ? I do not think AQ will be out of business anytime soon. There are still enough motivated jihadis in its ranks to cause way too much death and destruction. And besides, there are a host of things that AQ superiors, like al-Zawahiri, might decide to do to keep AQ alive and well. For example, from a purely self-preservation perspective, it would be smart for AQ to temper the violence and form a political wing, which just might give the organization a chance to become a part of national politics in the Middle East—much like Hamas and Hezbollah have done over the last decade. This strategy could enable AQ to rebrand itself and provide an avenue for AQ to entrench its roots in societies in ways it never did before. Hence, I think it is a bit premature to proclaim the death of AQ, as many foreign policy pundits are now doing. 
But AQ is no longer the organization it was in 2001. Its power, potency, relevancy, and credibility have all been severely harmed. And by now, AQ is not even the most dangerous and threatening terrorist organization. That designation likely belongs to Hezbollah, a group that has a noxious combination of thousands of militants, more than enough weapons, political clout in Lebanon, and financial and military backing from troublemakers in Iran and Syria.  Hassan Nasrallah, have magnified their power over time. Going forward, let us see if AQ has the skill or capacity to apply this principle to its own conditions.

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