By Lawrence Husick
Osama bin Laden is dead and buried at sea. Barely 12 hours after the President’s announcement, pundits are comfortably speaking of the man in the past tense. Many are doing the same with al Qaeda, as if shooting the man in the head effectively does the same to his movement. Those who think so fail to understand the importance of bin Laden’s innovations, or the transformed nature of his organization, and this lack of understanding may prove dangerous in the months and years ahead.
Although Osama bin Laden did not invent the incandescent light bulb, he may yet be remembered as the Edison of Islamism, inventing al Qaeda, an innovation factory of terrorism without equal in the modern world. Using his own substantial personal fortune and funds drawn from diverse sources in the Islamic world including both real and sham charities, cybercrime and blood diamonds, bin Laden transformed the business of holy warrior defending a Muslim land from infidel invaders to a multinational brand, intent on restoring a caliphate that never was, and in the process, overthrowing the nation-states within dar al Islam and taking on the United States and its political and economic allies. That he failed was perhaps preordained. That he managed to shake the world is evidence of the continuing danger of his innovation.
The al Qaeda of the East African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole no longer exists. A trillion war dollars and nearly 50,000 US dead and injured have erased the training camps and have, for the most part, choked off recruiting of young Muslims to travel to Afghanistan (though not entirely to Pakistan). The pre-9/11 command and control hierarchy, if it ever truly was effective, has been decimated by captures, missile strikes, and battlefield casualties. As a military organization, we have neutralized al Qaeda and have now cut off the head of the snake. Why, then, should it continue to concern us?
Put simply, we have spent nearly ten years in excising the al Qaeda tumor, but along the way, we failed to keep it from metastasizing, seeding dozens of new threats from the Far East to Latin America. Using the bloodstream of easy international travel and of the Internet, both ideology and know-how have spread around the world, allowing groups that were previously not like-minded or aligned to adopt the rhetoric and tactics of al Qaeda, and lowering the barriers to entry for formation of new groups for whom such rhetoric is a convenient add-on to localized grievances and goals.
For example, by using As Shahab media, Internet “memes” such as the slow-motion IED attack, “Juba” sniper video, and “how to” lessons on everything from building a rocket to a suicide bomb vest have radicalized many fertile young minds prepared by Imams and others. Broadcast exhortations, particularly those by bin Laden and his lieutenants urging the religious duty of jihad and the need to strike at the West by hitting the “joints of the economy” have culminated in the “Leverage” campaign of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that announced its intention to use a bombing plot costing $4,600 in order to cause the West to have to screen every cargo shipment by air, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Other groups, including many pre-existing ones, have renamed themselves with the al Qaeda “brand” despite a weak alignment of interests or goals.
In the past, we have likened al Qaeda to a venture capital firm, seeking leverage through small early investments of capital and know-how in emerging markets. Others have used the franchising analogy to describe how terrorism has spread across the globe. What these approaches have in common is the recognition that to be effective, bin Laden’s innovative approach did not require either his direct leadership or any transfer of personnel. What bin Laden and his deputies constructed was a 21st century extension of the classic insurgent cell organization, in which their transnational theater of operations both required and benefitted from new forms of communication and organization that allowed rapid innovation in doctrine and tactics. For at least the first six years of the fight, these advances kept al Qaeda ahead in the innovation race.
It is ironic that the compound that housed bin Laden in Pakistan may have been the only house in the neighborhood that lacked both a telephone line and a connection to the Internet. It is likely that bin Laden recognized that such communications, so essential to the al Qaeda “business model” would be used to locate him, and so he reverted to using face-to-face communication through trusted intermediaries. Perhaps this is what made him so difficult to find, but it also attenuated his role in the movement that he created.
At the end, bin Laden’s role was more inspirational than operational, but now dead, his inspirational role may increase as the political upheavals of the Arab Spring turn away from the meager offerings of radical Islam and to more prosaic matters of jobs and food, both marginalizing and further radicalizing bin Laden’s followers. Only time will tell whether the leverage gained from terrorism will be sufficient to sustain the al Qaeda brand that bin Laden invented.
Lawrence Husick is a Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Center on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism and Co-Director of FPRI’s Project on Teaching Innovation.