Where Do We Go From Here?
By Taylor Marvin
What does Bin Laden’s death actually mean for Al Qaeda and radical Islam? As usual, The Arabist has a good take:
“The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US “reformist” option of the “moderate” Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak’s Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don’t want reform, they want rupture.
The trends that are winning out in recent years are the radical-resistance ideologies of Hizbullah (and to a lesser degree Hamas) and the radical-centrist view that fueled the uprisings. And in the longer-run, it is the latter rather than the former that have a vision of societies that are not constantly mobilized towards an external (or internal) enemy. The views of Hamas and Hizbullah address the problems of war and occupation, but not those of these societies beyond those problems. Bin Laden never really addressed either, his fight was for the glory of the impossible and in the hereafter.”
If Bin Laden had been killed between in 2002, his death would have been much more dangerous. However, the fact that his death occurred so soon after the Arab uprising is a moderating influence on a potentially very dangerous event. It’s also worth remembering that Bin Laden’s death is much less significant than the Arab Spring, and will likely have little effect on the actual security of the United States. Victories against violent Islamists are won by convincing frustrated and vulnerable young people that the poverty and very real injustices that dominate their lives is best fought with protest and domestic social change, rather than terrorism. This is a message the United States has very little ability to propagate. The world is better off without Osama Bin Laden, but if it was a choice between his death and the Arab Spring I’d choose the latter.
If Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups with nebulous political goals — as opposed to Hamas and Hisbullah — are losing popularity, how much does this affect their actual operational capabilities? Bin Laden’s death does deprive radical Islamists of their one globally recognized mouthpiece, but it is debatable how much small terrorist groups actually depend on a global support network. As terrorist attacks in Europe have demonstrated, small groups of isolated individuals are capable of causing great damage even without wider community or foreign support. Even if the vast majority of the Muslim world is uninterested in Al Qaeda’s narrative of violent struggle, a few thousand motivated individuals are still dangerous. It’s also worth noting that the revolutionary ideology of the Arab Spring seems to have made few inroads into Saudi Arabia, one of the greatest sources of support for radical Islamic conservatives. While the ideology of Al Qaeda seems to be losing popularity, it is still dangerous.
Update: Foreign Policy has a good roundup of reaction to the news on jihadi sites. It will be interesting to see how Al Qaeda chooses to react to this. They can immediately acknowledge Bin Laden’s death — probably by releasing a pre-recorded final video — and hope to generate favorable attention in the Muslim world, or they can deny his death and encourage the conspiracy theorists who maintain the US is lying. The US’s decision to quickly dispose of the body will lend credibility to an Al Qaeda official denial, but it’s unlikely Bin Laden’s subordinates could maintain this position for long. Similarly, while admitting to his assassination could bolster his stature as a martyr, there’s no way to spin the US military and intelligence community’s competence and the embarrassingly inglorious nature of Bin Laden’s death. The fact that he was apparently living in luxury, not a cave in the FATA, would seem to also reduce his popularity with poor Muslims and the Taliban.