Age of Terror: Killing Lawrence of Arabia
However, a few minutes ago, news has come that their spiritual leader, Osama bin Laden, had been killed by US troops. This was not your run-of-the-mill Predator drone attack, but an actual ground operation. He was the public face of 9-11; his broadcasts were aired continuously in defiance of American bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ..
A few weeks before, in response to speculation from journalists and analysts that al-Qaeda had been out of their depth in the recent wave of democratic rebellions across the Middle East, they release a new issue of their official Inspire magazine. While this exhorted the revolutions as part of a greater movement against the West, this in form was actually a PR offensive designed to bring the movement back to the public eye.
However, a few minutes ago, news has come that their spiritual leader, Osama bin Laden, had been killed by US troops. This was not your run-of-the-mill Predator drone attack, but an actual ground operation. Further details will arrive, but the immediate consequence is clear: al-Qaeda has lost its public face. Though there have been many attempts to publicize the organization through various faces, it has always been bin Laden which jihadists could identify the most. He was the public face of 9-11; his broadcasts were aired continuously in defiance of American bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without him, al-Qaeda’s utterances fall flat on its face.
Osama bin Laden, since his outrageously successful “planes operation” in 2001, has largely been pushed further and further away from the limelight. He had envisioned a life and death struggle in the mountainous countryside of Afghanistan, and for a while–with suicide bombings, IEDs, and other massive operations (Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005) his movement had gained international momentum. While many movements were not directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, they sought an implicit link.
Osama bin Laden had fashioned himself as a 21st century Lawrence of Arabia (the Peter O’Toole depiction), electrifying the rest of the Muslim world with a war against the broad West, centered on the US. However, like Lawrence, his star shone only for as long as it was to the benefit of other nation-states. The international jihadist coalition in Iraq, for example, was actually to the benefit of Iran. While his early broadcasts were war-reels taunting the US for their inefficiency to suppress the movement, the later broadcasts become more and more as utterances trying to keep al-Qaeda in public memory.
Several things have since happened: US President Bush, which was one of the centers of focus of international jihadist anger, has stepped down. The Middle East, while in turmoil for its democratic revolutions, is actually undergoing a social revolution. The US has already made overt pledges to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. This, by all accounts, is already a signal victory. And the various states that capitalized on the war have already got what they needed.
One also should not discount the efforts of the US and its allies to step-up counter terrorism operations, including isolating the movement from any state sponsorship. That, of course entails, direct negotiations with these said states, and the fact that Pakistan has allowed a direct military operation–with their cooperation–in their country to terminate bin Laden is a major indication that this has been largely accomplished. [Click here for a Newsweek article on “Why Bin Laden’s death no longer matters]
Al Qaeda portrayed itself as an international coalition–a pan Islamist movement, in fact–in a similar way as the one bin Laden had proposed to the Saudis would fight on their side during the crisis of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Was it a far-fetched dream to reconstitute the Caliphate? In the heady days of 2004, with the Iraq and Afghan wars in full swing, this was still true. But it must be admitted that the Middle East is transforming as al-Qaeda would have envisioned it without al-Qaeda’s participation. And dreams must give way to the reality of states: while Syria or Iran or even the Saudis agree to sponsor the movement, its leaders will certainly not give the movement power over them.
So, what does the death of the Lawrence of the 21st century achieve? Closure, for certain. He was the spiritual leader behind 9-11, the one man most Americans can identify with the attack. And an already largely fragmented movement will suffer a leadership crisis (it is possible that they have prepared for that eventuality). Some al-Qaeda branches (like the AQIM and the Yemeni) will remain active, but will be more regional in character.
This also gives a great political boost to Obama, just a day after foreign policy complications in Libya. If he handles this well, he could make this as decisive an event as the 2008 economic crisis was for the election. And it is a sound political victory for American intelligence, which has been under attack since its failure to predict 2001 (or not act on it), to verify intelligence on Iraq before 2003, and its apparent inability to predict a sudden wave of democratic risings across the Middle East in early 2011.
Other questions, of course will soon follow: who is to succeed him? Which branch of al-Qaeda will take central hold? Has there already been consolidation years before? Al-Qaeda can offset the impact of this news by counter-reply, or another PR offensive. You can probably see this in the next magazine issue, or official statements in jihadist channels.
In any case, the US has been given a great morale boost and opportunity. What happens next is anybody’s best guess.
“Bin Laden’s Death and the Implications for Jihadism is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”