While the symbolism of killing Osama Bin Laden is a major victory for the West in its long war against Jihadi terrorism, “decapitation” of a Hydra-like organisation is as futile as trying to ‘kill’ an idea, writes former Army Captain Patrick Bury.
Killing Bin Laden is important for three reasons: firstly, the rough justice it serves to victims of the 9/11 bombings. Secondly, the unequivocal message it sends to international terrorists for whom each day Bin Laden remained at large was a propaganda victory: that the US can, eventually, find you and kill you, even if you are being protected by a so called ally. And thirdly, it denies the much degraded jihadi movement its symbolic figurehead and one of its strategic planners.
According to Peter Bergen’s ‘The Longest War’, since the September 11th attacks, Bin Laden issued over thirty video and audio tapes which have been watched by many millions around the globe. These tapes have not only instructed Al Qaeda affiliates to continue their mission of killing Westerners and Jews, they have also often given specific instructions that have been carried out by Bin Laden’s accomplices to devastating effect.
In 2003, Bin Laden called for attacks against coalition members in Iraq: soon after the British consulate in Turkey was attacked. Commuters on their way to work in Madrid were bombed in 2004, an act that convinced Spain to pull its troops out of Iraq altogether. In December 2006, Bin Laden called for attacks against Saudi oil infrastructure: in February 2006 Al Qaeda operatives duly attacked the most important oil production facility in the world in Abqaiq. And in 2007, after Bin Laden called for attacks on the Pakistani state, suicide bombings rose sharply in the country.
So Bin Laden was not just a symbolic figure in the world of Jihadi terrorism; he had operational knowledge and/or control of terror plots that were carried out around the globe by various groups. However, the September 11th attacks marked Bin Laden’s and Al Qaeda’s zenith of power. Pursued by the US intelligence services and with a $25 million bounty on his head, the wealthy Saudi with royal connections was forced into a lifestyle that meant he could not maintain day to day oversight of Al Qaeda operations. But the “hermit on the hilltop” still kept the ideological flame of Jihadism alight.
In a private study of over 600 extremists arrested in Saudi Arabia in the last eight years, participants said Osama Bin Laden was their most important role model. In a 2008 study of Muslim opinion in Morocco, Indonesia, Jordan and Turkey, respondents expressed more “confidence” in the Al Qaeda icon than in President George Bush. Even in Pakistan last year, approval ratings for the most wanted man in the world stood at 18 per cent, according to one source. If this man could inspire whole populations through his ideology, he also certainly had no problem inspiring fellow extremists.
Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the group that carried out the July 2005 London bombings, described Bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, as his “heroes”. Similarly, Abdullah Ali, the ringleader of a plot to destroy aircraft over the Atlantic in 2006 declared in his ‘martyrdom’ video that: “Sheikh Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed”. Nicky Reilly, a 22-year-old covert to Islam, wrote in his suicide note that: “Sheik Usama has told you how to end this war… but you ignore us… Leave our lands and stop your support for Israel”, before attempting to blow himself up in an Exeter restaurant in 2008.
Such an efficient summary of Bin Laden’s basic politico- religious message by a disturbed young British man demonstrates the traction that his ideology can have with both home grown extremists, seasoned jihadi terrorists and elements of wider Muslim populations alike. And it is precisely due to this strength of Bin Laden’s ideological currency that the importance of his death on Sunday evening is undermined.
For Bin Laden, his Islamic crusade was not against the West per se. It was against the West’s foreign policy, most notably America’s, and its support for Israel. In this it is interesting to note that Bin Laden never used the liberal West’s way of life as a pre-text for attacks. Instead, enraged by the loss of Jerusalem to Israel in 1967, Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon in 1982, and the presence of American troops on Saudi soil after the Iraq war in 1991, he said he felt the loss of Muslim lands to the infidel “like a burning fire in my intestines”. And driving this loss, in Bin Laden’s basic strategic view, was the tacit support of America for Israeli actions and ‘apostate’ regimes in the Middle East. Indeed, it is this tenet of his ideology that gives it traction with a small percentage of Muslims around the world. And it is the basic truth within this vision that will see it endure long after his death.
So, Bin Laden’s ideology will live on. But what of his organisation? Severely depleted and dispersed to avoid detection, Al Qaeda will still remain a global threat in some shape or form for years to come. Zawahiri is still at large, and has more operational control over the loose organisation than its iconic figurehead had. Even killing him may not be enough. Cutting off the heads of the Al Qaeda Hydra is not the best way of defeating an organisation that has as its basis an idea. Moreover, martyrdom is expected and hoped for amongst hard core members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, many who will see Bin Laden’s death as he himself did: “as a beacon that arouses the zeal and determination of (our) followers”.
But there will be other significant repercussions to Bin Laden’s death. The location of his capture, barely a kilometre from the Pakistani equivalent of Sandhurst, will further sour already deteriorating US-Pakistan relations. That elements of the Pakistani intelligence services could be as duplicitous to allow the key fugitive of an ally to hide safely in a relatively obvious compound does not bode well for the future of the American-Pakistan relationship, or Pakistan’s internal dynamics. Neither does it bode well for Afghanistan, which NATO invaded to catch the newly infamous Bin Laden 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Libya’s Gaddafi has been given food for thought, and India can look forward to a budding geo-political alliance with America against Chinese and Pakistani influence.