This article first appeared in the 3 May 2011 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
ANALYSIS: The death of the figurehead leader of al-Qaeda does not presage the end of the worldwide campaign of terror he inspired
OSAMA BIN Laden’s legacy is that the ideology of al-Qaeda will endure. Al-Qaeda is a group of like-minded people, not a global military structure directed from a notional centre. In fact, the “Arab spring” we are witnessing is a much greater threat to al-Qaeda than the loss of its figurehead, iconic though he may have been.
To understand the significance of bin Laden’s death, we need to take a few steps back.
The key ideologist for al-Qaedaism, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, has stated that the current terror campaign commenced on the death of Sayyid Qutb in an Egyptian jail in 1966.
Qutb was one of the main activists involved in establishing political Islam in the mid-20th century as a driving force in the Islamic world.
This led to an effort, particularly focused on the Middle East and North Africa, to establish completely Islamic states to eliminate the perceived weaknesses in Islam at that time. This was through a process of capturing the institutions of the state, and using the state itself as the means of achieving the desired result of a successful, completely Islamic, entity.
The approach adopted mainly involved mass mobilisation through social and political activities, principally directed by the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood – Qutb was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The perceived failure of political Islam eventually led to the establishment of al-Qaeda, or more accurately, the development of the ideology that I and others term “al-Qaedaism”, in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the Middle East, Gulf and North Africa.
This ideology, supposedly learning from the failure of political Islam, ignores the institutions of Islamic states, believes that the popular will in Islamic states cannot achieve its objectives by political means or through mass mobilisation, and focuses on attacking the far enemy (the West in general and the US in particular).
It believes that with the downfall of the US, the Islamic regimes it supports will collapse like paper tigers.
This radical and exclusionist ideology sees violence through militant jihad as the only way to achieve its aims, and has developed a fully-worked-through justification (particularly in the 1996 treatise by Zawahiri, The Cure for Believers’ Hearts) for killing innocent civilians and Muslims in this self-stated, never-ending campaign.
It is a deep irony – if that is an adequate word – that the main victims of this campaign have been Muslims worldwide. The precise death toll is difficult to calculate, but is approximately 400,000 Muslims, and 6,000 westerners at most.
It is for this and related reasons that Pew Global Attitudes surveys consistently show declining and quite low support for bin Laden, his terror campaign and suicide attacks in almost all Muslim states.
The death of a figurehead clearly should not unduly diminish the attractiveness of an ideology to the small minority who adhere to it. It is therefore to be expected that the current terror campaign will continue.
This view is supported by the work of Audrey Kurth Cronin on the demise of terrorist campaigns.
Having correctly analysed the al-Qaeda phenomenon as one embracing an ideology, a worldwide franchise of like-minded thinkers if you will, she points out that while decapitation can work against some terrorist campaigns and lead to their demise, it clearly will not work in the case of bin Laden and al-Qaeda.*
A much greater threat to the core of this issue, al-Qaedaism, has been the Arab spring, the Arab awakening over recent months.
Al-Qaedaism postulated that success could only come through militant jihad against the West, relegating the vast majority of the population of Muslim states to helpless bystanders while their so-called betters carried on their minority, bloody, and utterly fruitless campaign.
The very important changes that have already occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, and are under way in many other states in that region, owe nothing to al-Qaedaism and everything to the brave individual citizens of those states.
This is a lesson which cuts to the core of the ideology and will be much more damaging to it than the death of bin Laden.
However, should the Arab spring fail or turn into another Arab winter, opportunities would arise again for the al-Qaeda terror campaign.
In the meantime, it is likely that Zawahiri, its current ideological chief, will assume control of what might be termed al-Qaeda central.
If anything, he will be a much more dangerous and vicious opponent than bin Laden: he lost both his wife and his only son in a US air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001.
*Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating al-Qaeda by Audrey Kurth Cronin is published by Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies as Adelphi paper number 394
Richard Whelan is the author of Al-Qaedaism: The Threat to Islam, the Threat to the World, published by Ashfield press in Ireland and by Platin in Turkey. His website is www.richardwhelan.com.