The surprise of Bin Laden’s death and Obama’s victory

Hassan Abou Taleb , Wednesday 11 May 2011

Confounding his critics, Obama has delivered a bigger blow to Al-Qaeda than ever did his predecessor

Killing Bin Laden was a great surprise after an intentional silence by US officials about Al-Qaeda and the movements of its now murdered leader. It was also a great surprise to find Bin Laden living in Pakistan near the capital and in a heavily guarded compound, while all we had been told in the media —possibly as a decoy —was that the focus was on searching for Bin Laden in barren mountainous regions on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The biggest surprise of all is that the operation was carried out successfully inside Pakistan without the Pakistani government knowing anything about it. This opens up the door to many summations about the security situation inside Pakistan and the freedom of movement of the Americans, which will add to the problems of the president and the entire government.

Whether the timing or execution were a surprise, we must admit that killing Bin Laden in a military intelligence operation is a significant turning point in President Obama’s policy towards Al-Qaeda and what the US calls the war on terror. The operation was very sophisticated in terms of information gathering, surveillance, attack, execution and staying on target, namely killing the leader and arresting his wife and some of his children without any injuries among the assault unit. The corpse was then taken to an unidentified location. Once more is known about the operation it will become more apparent how determined the US was to kill Bin Laden, leader of the most dangerous organisation in the world and the number one threat to US security, according to an 18-month-old paper on the US’s strategic outlook.

Now, President Obama can pride himself in achieving more security for his country, his countrymen and the entire world, and that his policy, which was criticised by Republicans for a long time claiming that he is too soft and there are many holes in confronting the terrorist Al-Qaeda group, was to the contrary sound. In fact, it is a successful and effective policy. Naturally, in one way or another, it is a continuation of former President Bush’s policy, which focused on eradicating Al-Qaeda, threatening its leaders, breaking up its supporters, as well as following and drying up sources of funding. And hence, the branches dried up and were destroyed.

By any standard, killing Bin Laden is a serious blow to the organisation. Not only was he the founder, but he was also the provocateur and inspiration for group members who hold him in reverence. He was also the advocate of a violent jihadist ideology towards non-Muslims everywhere in the world, or until everyone converts to Islam.

The first blow to the group was the war that President Bush launched at the end of 2011 against Afghanistan. It overthrew the Taliban regime and obliterated any possibility that Al-Qaeda would find safe refuge and freedom, as was previously the case in Afghanistan before the demise of the Taliban. In this manner, the group was fragmented and lost its organisational power. It became a network of small and disconnected groups and organisations spread in a large number of countries and a handful of sleeper cells that believe in Bin Laden’s ideas and work to harm US interests anywhere and in any manner when opportunity presents itself.

Bin Laden’s death means that this network has also lost its spiritual leader and symbol around which everyone gravitated, and from whom they were energised for violent acts. Hence, the network will become even more fragmented, especially that it is unlikely that a new leader for Al-Qaeda will emerge to replace Bin Laden. It’s not a matter of a new leader, but rather whether this leader will be accepted and also held in reverence.

Ayman Al-Zawahri could be a candidate, as the number two in the organisation and considering his historical role in creating the group in 1998, but he does not seem qualified for the job for many reasons. First, he is a divisive figure among the leaders of the group —or what remains of them; second, he is not as charismatic as Bin Laden and neither does he have access to the sources of funding the dead leader did. Also, perhaps his nationality as an Egyptian could work against him being chosen as the primary leader of the group in the coming phase.

Recent statements by Al-Zawahri where he analyses conditions in the Muslim world or incites acts of terrorism or threatens US and Western interests no longer not carry much weight, and are not received with the same interest in the media like a year or two ago. A while ago, the spotlight was dimmed, especially that many Islamic groups in the Arab world began to be included in political life in their countries. In fact, many of them have revised their violent methods and now prefer to utilise peaceful preaching to violent action.

After Bin Laden’s death, and once more details are known about the surveillance and intelligence gathering, those who are left in Al-Qaeda’s leadership will realise that they too will likely be killed just like their leader. Also, that despite strict security procedures they too can be exposed and infiltrated. Therefore, and in all probability, in the immediate future these figures will disappear and step up security precautions to protect themselves.

Whoever the next leader will be, maintaining the organisation even in the form of a network of small fractured groups will be very difficult. It will also be difficult, if not impossible, to reformulate a new jihadist vision, especially in light of current regional and international events, specifically in the Muslim world, which no longer embraces such organisations and does not sympathise with violent action. Today, it believes that Al-Qaeda and its actions were a curse for the entire Muslim world and that it has nothing to do with Islam, and their harm was without boundaries.

Bin Laden was killed and Obama managed a great feat that will play a big role in silencing his detractors and attracting more votes in his re-election. By combining a policy of making a distinction between Islam as a religion that calls for compassion, moderation and balance on the one hand, and violent terrorist organisations on the other, President Obama earned the respect of the Muslim world. He also gained ground that his predecessor didn’t, and in that way was able to eliminate many of the factors that pushed people to embrace violent organisations.

Conventional wisdom dictates that we should not be excessively jubilant because this does not mean a complete end of the threat of Al-Qaeda. It is true that the danger has been downsized but it still remains, and one of the affiliate groups may decide to carry out an attack against the interests of the US or one of the allies to prove that the organisation is still alive and well, and that the loss of its leader does not mean the demise of the group. It is likely that such an operation would be primarily for the sake of spectacle, even if it takes place after a while when tight security measures taken by the US and its allies are relaxed. Even still, the long-term danger has greatly diminished.

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