By Barak Mendelsohn
Osama bin Laden’s death is a devastating blow to al-Qaeda, but it is not the end of jihadi terrorism. While it is demoralizing for the whole jihadi camp, it will not eliminate the motivation to attack the U.S. and is likely to trigger revenge attacks. But from strategic point of view the death of bin Laden could mark a critical junction in the process of demilitarizing the war on terrorism and the beginning of the end for U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda will survive bin Laden’s death. Al-Qaeda and jihadism will continue not merely because bin Laden’s legacy will keep feeding jihadi terrorism, but because the jihadis’ radical interpretation of Islam still resonates with some Muslims. But bin Laden’s importance for al-Qaeda and the adverse effects his death will have on the group, cannot be overstated. His unique centrality is unlikely to be replicated by any of his potential successors. Although his operational role greatly diminished since 9/11, bin Laden was the embodiment of al-Qaeda. He devised the group’s strategy, and was a strong symbol of resistance. Beyond successful tactical measures to preserve the group and American strategic missteps, it was the power of bin Laden’s charisma that allowed al-Qaeda to survive tremendous losses after 9/11 and become a brand name that attracted individuals and other jihadi groups.
Paradoxically, bin Laden was simultaneously the power behind al-Qaeda’s ascendance and a major cause for its decline. During the 1990s, at a time when jihadis’ confrontations with the ‘close enemy’ regimes in Egypt and Algeria failed, bin Laden offered an alternative course of action. By attacking the U.S., he triggered a momentous set of events, and positioned himself and al-Qaeda at the forefront of the jihadi camp. But bin Laden was also an inept strategist. His strategy was based on extremely unrealistic expectations that the U.S. will quickly crumble, and that the Muslim masses will hurry to join al-Qaeda’s ranks. Bin Laden’s fantasy plan, which promised to solve the problems of the umma, cost the lives of many innocent people as he encouraged numerous young Muslims to engage in an orgy of violence, often massacring co-religionists in the name of God. But bin Laden’s strategy did not bring the anticipated fruits and failed to recreate a Caliphate or bring down even one single Arab ruler. Instead, in his last days alive, the Muslim youth bin Laden was counting on were demonstrating throughout the Middle East, calling for democratic reforms which he saw as signs of infidelity. His silence since the Arab Spring started was deafening.
Bin Laden’s leadership style magnified al-Qaeda problems. Bin Laden was a benign authoritarian: while maintaining an above the fray image, and a holy-like demeanor, bin Laden mastered the skills to quietly suppress internal opposition. He kept the organization relatively cohesive even as its operation became increasingly diffused in response to the heavy international pressure. After 9/11 bin Laden even succeeded in bringing critics such as abu Musab al-Suri to close ranks behind him. However, his strategy pushed al-Qaeda over the brink and its grave mistakes (primarily the killing of Muslim civilians) slowly fractured bin Laden’s image. People who once were close associates started criticizing him publicly.
And yet bin Laden maintained his unique position inside the jihadi universe and far beyond. Others may prove to be better strategists but no individual, including his lieutenant al-Zawahiri, possesses similar aura of invincibility and appeal among Muslims. Whoever succeeds bin Laden will find that for his sympathizers throughout the world bin Laden the leader can only be replaced by bin Laden the myth and the symbol. Terrorism will endure but strategic objectives will become even harder to achieve.
His successor will have to struggle with difficult problems bin Laden managed to postpone due to his stature and allure. Prominent among these issues will be how to maintain al-Qaeda’s anti-American and anti-Western narrative. Revenge may prove a useful way to motivate al-Qaeda members and sympathizers to continue bin Laden’s plans and attack the U.S. and its allies, but without a compelling strategic vision that will tie such attacks to strategic change, the appeal of such a campaign will be short lived.
The need to preserve the broader al-Qaeda network will confound the challenges of bin Laden’s replacement. Franchises that swore allegiance to bin Laden himself may not accept the authority of his successor. Even if they chose to remain part of al-Qaeda outwardly, the inclination of most franchises to focus on local conflicts is likely to increase, though Western targets in the franchises’ theater of responsibility will probably retain their preferred status. At the same time, the leadership of al-Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula, which in the past couple of years, eclipsed the central organization, may even present a direct challenge to the leadership in South Asia in the post-bin Laden era. Combining the operational opportunity due to the unrest in Yemen, presence near the birthplace of Islam, and an intimate relationship with the dead leader, the leaders of this branch could vie for leadership of the jihadi movement.
As events in the Middle East highlight the weakness of its ‘far enemy’ strategy, al-Qaeda will be pressed to produce a much more compelling reaction than its spokesmen, al-Zawahiri, abu Yahya al-Libi and Atiyatallah, have offered so far. The new al-Qaeda leader will not have the privileges bin Laden enjoyed and he will face much more pointed critique if he does not provide a strategic direction for the group. With regimes collapsing throughout the Middle East, even the greatest supporters of al-Qaeda will feel inclined to focus on events back home and abandon global jihad. Examples from Libya and Egypt suggest that some jihadis may even abandon local jihads altogether and seek reintegration into their societies. As a result, al-Qaeda may end up largely irrelevant to setting the future of the Middle East. Moreover, it could end up increasingly dependent on Western recruits — many of whom are ignorant about Islam — for continuing its anti-Western agenda. Such developments, albeit still gravely threatening to Western countries, will push al-Qaeda further away from its Islamic roots and from the areas it is mostly concerned with, the states of the Middle East.
While the strategic threat from al-Qaeda will probably decline, the motivation for revenge attacks by groups and individuals in the West will be at its highest level. Lone terrorists and “homegrown” cells in particular will seek to avenge bin Laden, and they will be even less discriminate in their killings. In addition, al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the Middle East will want to demonstrate their sympathy by carrying out attacks in memory of bin Laden. Pakistan will probably suffer (as always) the greatest carnage as multiple local jihadi groups will seek to take revenge against the Pakistani state and its citizens.
Over the long run, the prospects of ending U.S. intervention in Afghanistan have increased considerably. Bin Laden’s death provides the U.S. an opportunity to declare victory and start withdrawing from the country. The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, will find that bin Laden’s death released them from a great liability and could make it easier for them to severe their links with al-Qaeda; after all the Taliban have much greater interest in regaining control over Afghanistan than waging a global jihad. If both sides will take advantage of the opportunity to wind down the war in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s death will mark a stepping stone in demilitarizing the global war on terrorism and toward dealing with terrorism through intelligence and police work.
Barak Mendelsohn is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Haverford College.