The (In)Significance of Bin Laden’s Death
A few thoughts on the death of Usama bin Laden:
- This will have only limited impact on al-Qaeda operations and activities, given bin Laden’s limited role beyond general strategy and propaganda. Al-Qaeda affiliates receive limited funding, training and armament from from bin Laden and his core group. Al-Qaeda is deliberately decentralized so that it can function after suffering a blow such as this one.
- Bin Laden had more credibility and appeal in general than his senior lieutenants (Zawahiri especially) and affiliate leaders whose pronouncements and activities alienate their target audiences in the Muslim and especially Arab worlds. Zawahiri statements are interesting only to those already drawn into jihadi ideology whereas bin Laden had the ability to speak about al-Qaeda’s cause in terms more appealing to general audiences, drawing in multiple reference points that the average person might be able to relate to. Bin Laden could take events, key words and political ideas that appealed to the broad palette of Arab grievances with the United States, the colonial background, regime oppression, and religious militancy far more effectively than Zawahiri whose attempts at this end up more narrow and off-putting to even those with an equal amount of distaste for American foreign policy. This is a major blow for the internationalist appeal of al-Qaeda if the group is unable to produce a similarly charismatic leader from its own ranks. Bin Laden’s death will continue al-Qaeda’s marginalization.
- Bin Laden’s death will have an important psychological affect on Americans (particularly given the popular and public response) and their overall view of the War on Terrorism, which is likely to have some impact on attitudes toward the Afghanistan conflict, change the political framing of national security problems for the opposition and those concerned with the conduct of war.
- This is a good reference point for President Obama to begin scaling down the American presence in Afghanistan. One wonders whether this will end up being the case given the [of course evolving] domestic political climate and other (mainly economic) factors.
- President Obama will likely benefit from this in opinion polling and his chances at re-election are increased. In such a case point three becomes more likely during the second term. The consequences of this are of course uncertain.
- Bin Laden’s popularity and influence in Arab politics should not be overstated. Current unrest in the region has little to with bin Laden, al-Qaeda or its affiliate organizations, which have struggled for relevance as the political discourse and popular priorities zoom past them. Issandr el-Amrani puts it well:
The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US “reformist” option of the “moderate” Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak’s Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don’t want reform, they want rupture.