We can safely say 2011 has not been good for Al-Qaeda. First, the organisation witnessed people power movements throughout the Middle East, which have damaged the organisation’s credibility and relevancy on a number of levels.
For instance, these pro-democracy uprisings clearly showed that Muslims prefer to live in freedom rather than in a harshly repressive politico-religious straightjacket. Moreover, Egypt and Tunisia debunked the Al-Qaeda-propagated myth that political change can only occur through violence.
Additionally, the uprisings are the biggest series of events in the region in decades, yet Al-Qaeda was only an observer. It contributed nothing to the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Even worse, the leaders of Al-Qaeda did not foresee the uprisings, nor were they prepared to address them. The best Al-Qaeda could offer has been a few dated, rambling and incoherent statements that appeared to be composed before the fall of Mubarak.
And now, with the fall of Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has suffered another major blow. Bin Laden is irreplaceable. He had the skill and charisma to recruit people into the organisation and inspire his followers into committing violence and destruction. Plus, under Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda popularised suicide terrorism, which is the ultimate form of loyalty and sacrifice to the organisation and to Osama himself. Furthermore, I question whether any potential replacement for Bin Laden possesses his ambition and his ability to think strategically. To be honest, these characteristics are not easy to find in people.
The death of Bin Laden leaves Al-Qaeda a demoralised, insecure organisation. Certainly, if only for symbolic reasons, it is tough for a group to lose its founder and leader. But its members —no matter how high or low in Al-Qaeda’s hierarchy —now know with certainty that they are not safe or free from the long reach of America’s military forces. As long as Bin Laden was alive and on the run, Al-Qaeda members could believe their crimes were free from punishment. Bin Laden’s death at the hands of US Special Forces punctures that idea. And the so-called “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered at the scene of Bin Laden’s killing only places the lives of more and more Al-Qaeda members, including Ayman Al-Zawahiri (Al-Qaeda’s number two man and likely successor to Bin Laden), in extreme peril.
So where does all of this leave Al-Qaeda? Al-Qaeda is no longer the organisation it was in 2001. Its power, relevancy and credibility have all been severely harmed. Terrorism experts claim that Al-Qaeda will try to regroup by focusing on its recruitment efforts and violently lashing out at the West. Perhaps, but those will not be true indicators of Al-Qaeda’s future viability and durability. As the past decade has shown, death and destruction and mayhem will get Al-Qaeda only so far until these efforts inevitably anger people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
Instead, the real test to Al-Qaeda will be whether it models itself after organisations like Hamas and Hizbullah, which today are complex and multi-dimensional. A major problem Al-Qaeda has is that it lacks significant means to connect with Muslims. To survive, its only option is to fix this. At bottom, to truly capture the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East and around the world, Al-Qaeda would need to show a much different, more compassionate, side of itself.
In particular, it would need to develop a political wing and a social outreach programme to go along with its militant plots and schemes. From a self-preservation perspective, it would be smart for Al-Qaeda to temper its violence and militant tendencies and aim to integrate itself into societies. This strategy could enable Al-Qaeda to rebrand the organisation and provide an avenue for Al-Qaeda to entrench its roots in countries in ways it never did before.
Quite frankly, this is exactly the path that Hamas has pursued over the last 10 years or so. It is well known that Hamas modelled itself after Hizbullah. What Hamas leaders learned from Hizbullah was that their success was always going to be limited as long they were narrowly fixated on blowing up things and people.
By expanding its means of action, by building schools and hospitals and soup kitchens and support within parliament, Hamas was much more effectively able to communicate that it stood for the people. In fact, the new approach was so successful that Hamas won free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, thereby granting the organisation legitimate ruling power.
Admittedly, Al-Qaeda would have a very tough time transforming itself. Al-Qaeda is unpopular, with a substantial amount of baggage it would need to overcome. It would have to fundamentally shift from being almost exclusively an anti-Western organisation to one that concentrates on issues like economic development, healthcare, and literacy.
Al-Qaeda is an anti-democratic organisation that exists in a world in which there seems to be an increasing exuberance for democratic ideas, institutions and processes. To be a legitimate political player, especially nowadays in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda would have to relax its stance on participatory regimes, which would be a very difficult task for an extraordinarily hard line politico-religious organisation.
And in general, there is nothing about Al-Qaeda to suggest that it is capable of progressive internal change. Remember, at heart, Al-Qaeda is a reflexively retrogressive organisation that tries to turn the political, religious, and cultural clock back in secular societies by hundreds of years.
To be clear, I am not enthusiastic about, nor am I a champion of, the idea of Al-Qaeda coming in from the fringe and moving into mainstream life. For anyone who has witnessed or has been directly impacted by Al-Qaeda’s bloody and ruthless terrorism, the thought of it being a legitimate part of Middle Eastern or African or Asian societies is utterly repugnant. In the end, it would be best if Al-Qaeda just quietly faded away.
That said, we should not prematurely proclaim the death of Al-Qaeda, as many foreign policy pundits are now doing. Nor should we categorically dismiss a potential path that Al-Qaeda might follow. Having a closed mind is bad for scholarship, policy analysis, and policymaking, and it impedes the ability of civilians to be properly informed. Hence, we must explicitly recognise that terror and militant groups like Al-Qaeda are malleable and can morph into something different, depending on their circumstances and capacities. This understanding can help us all be better prepared for Al-Qaeda’s next moves.
The writer is co-founder and president of the Centre for World Conflict and Peace, a think tank with offices in Columbus, Ohio and Jakarta, Indonesia.