When Osama bin Laden’s lifeless body was committed to the Indian Ocean last May, many in the Western world, particularly in the USA, felt a sense of relief tinged with satisfied revenge.
The death of the former leader of al-Qaeda marked, for many, the closing of a long and bloody chapter in the history of modern western conflict. However, in reality, bin Laden’s death raised more questions than it answered. Was it a body blow for Terror Inc. or was it a case of taking out yesterday’s man? Or perhaps, more appropriately, did the death of this individual mean anything at all? Would we be any safer? Would al-Qaeda be weaker? And could we bring the boys back home for Christmas?
Dying For The Cause
The need to frame debate over al-Qaeda’s potency around the death of bin Laden is in itself something of a red herring. It is akin to discussing the future chances of a football team based solely on the demise of their chairman. In such a case, questions of team line-up, tactics, finance, coaching and the strength of the opposition are more important.
Indeed, the tendency to think of al-Qaeda as a coherent group or team is, in itself, a delusion. The personification of global terror through al-Qaeda and its leader was a dumbing-down of the truth. It masked the reality that anti-Western sentiment was more widespread, and enacted through all sorts of methods, from the spontaneous to the nefarious.
The true threat to the West from al-Qaeda was in the inspiration it provided, rather than in direct action, from the group itself. bin Laden may have been useful in publicising and even financing terrorism, but it was the cause, rather than the activities, that were important. The number of attacks actually carried out by al-Qaeda is small, though obviously world-changing. But by bringing special attention to the sentiment felt by a fragment of the Islamic world, the organisation served as a beacon to like-minded individuals.
For those so radicalised, direct contact with al-Qaeda was unnecessary. The London 7/7 bombers, for example, are believed to have had no direct assistance from al-Qaeda. If someone was inspired to give their life, the targets were many and the tools could be simple: A gun, a home-made bomb or even just crashing a vehicle into a crowd.
This is not to deny that al-Qaeda could and did fund and organise terror attacks throughout the world, but to portray them as some sort of guerrilla army, is erroneous. They were, in management-speak, facilitators and consultants rather than producers. They could help to put like-minded groups in touch with each other, offer some training or slip some money through a back channel. They served as the lightning rod for the West’s fury and, in so doing, drew the attention away from the real message behind terrorism: A loathing of Western influence and a feeling that the Muslim people needed to take control of their own destinies in order to return to their level of historic greatness.
What is important for the future, is that these sentiments are still very much there.
The Face Of The Enemy
The fixation on bin Laden is indicative of a Western tendency to embody an ideological struggle into a simplified race to defeat an evil genius. In Iraq, it was Saddam Hussein. In Yugoslavia, it was Slobodan Milosevic. In Somalia, it was Mohamed Farah Aidid. In the War On Drugs, we had Pablo Escobar. The implication is that, by arresting or killing these individuals, the greater issue has then been resolved. The sheriff can ride back to town into the arms of his girl. All is good in the world again.
In reality, for some years, bin Laden had been isolated from the ability to pull the strings of global terror. His fugitive lifestyle and the need to cut himself off from channels of eavesdropping was a severe restriction on his activities. For al-Qaeda, this didn’t really matter because it operated more like a committee than an army. There was a kind of council that gave overall direction, but it was not a completely formal process. More importantly, the franchisees and copycats had no need to consult any sort of management chain.
Another part of the Western misconception of al-Qaeda and bin Laden was that it was all about hating us. However, the Salafist ideologues had just as much abhorrence of Arab regimes they saw as corrupt puppets or as secular apostates. There was particular loathing for Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s land of birth. King Abdullah was seen as nothing more than an impotent toady of America, allowing his nation to be used as a forward base for military strikes against Muslims.
The focus on conflict within Saudi Arabia and Yemen gave rise to perhaps al-Qaeda’s most successful franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Under the guidance of Anwar al-Awlaki, this group shifted the focus of the ideological and physical battle back to its geographical roots. Additionally, leaders like Samir Khan were more adept than bin Laden at using new media channels to get the propaganda message out, particularly to the English-speaking world.
When al-Awlaki and Khan were killed in September 2011, it’s likely that their demise had a much greater impact on terror operations than bin Laden’s death. However, continued political instability in Yemen following the wounding and then apparent resignation of President Saleh, makes the chaotic state one of the few places where al-Qaeda is actually holding territory, drone strikes notwithstanding.
Plus, the hydra has plenty of more heads. In North Africa, the al-Qaeda organisation in the Islamic Maghreb has been moving into those regions most disrupted by the Arab Spring. Boosted by revenue from ransom kidnappings, the group will be seeking to profit from the power vacuum in Libya and the proliferation of weaponry there. Further south, the activities of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria include the bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja. They best exemplify the problem of Islamic terror inspired by, but with no formal connection to, al-Qaeda.
The Real Impact
Perversely, perhaps the greatest impact of the bin Laden killing has been on the relationship between Pakistan and America. The healthy distrust shown by Washington for its nominal ally in the War On Terror strained what was already a fractious link. Carrying out an armed raid on friendly territory is never a recipe for goodwill and the subsequent, veiled language from spokespersons put the world in no doubt as to the level of America’s trust. The killing of border guards and other accidents since that time haven’t helped matters.
At the same time, Pakistan has seen a steadily-rising incidence of terrorist violence within its own borders. Around 3,000 civilians and security personnel have died in 2011 alone and a total of around 15,000 since the War On Terror began. This is hardly indicative of a victory over militants in the area.
Also of concern, is the possibility of this instability (and distrust of America) to spill over into the neighbouring Stans. In a visit to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in October 2011, Hilary Clinton was encouraging support for Afghanistan’s government. Without stable neighbours, the Afghan regime has no chance of surviving, and so the Americans might not be able to walk out on schedule. Naturally, this leaves the paradox of Washington having to support some fairly odious regimes for the sake of pushing democracy in the region. The Russians also have interests in this part of their backyard.
Are We Safe Now?
So, is the West any safer after the raid on Abbottabad? It certainly is, but this is not a product of that single strike. It’s the result of the countless billions of dollars and hours that have been put into counter-terrorism measures in the past decade. It is now harder to hijack a plane. It is harder to drive a truck up to the front of a government building, and it is much more risky to communicate with your group about planning an attack or wire them some cash. The relative dearth of major attacks in the West show that we are not such an easy target any more. Some things do slip through the net, but they tend to be the lone gunman type of attack. A 9/11-sized conspiracy is not impossible, but exceedingly unlikely to play out in the West.
So while Bush, Blair and now bin Laden are no longer part of the War On Terror, it continues unabated. The tactics and the locations have changed somewhat but, for all intents and purposes, the liquidation of the enigmatic Saudi has made no significant difference to the strategic realities of the campaign, which is fundamentally one of ideologies and geo-politics.
If there is a triumph in the killing of bin Laden, it is a moral or, perhaps, a morale one for the American people; a sense of justice being served and a righteous outcome to a manhunt that, for many, personified the day of September 11.
A more hidden win will be that the time and resources that have been funnelled into tracking one man might now be redeployed more sensibly as part of a wider strategic effort at countering terror. After all, the reality is that the root causes of the clash are unlikely to be addressed, let alone be given, the Sisyphean efforts required for solution.