The Death of Osama Bin Laden

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Death of Osama Bin Laden


Work to Be Done in a Post-Bin Laden World

By Rami G. Khouri

Osama bin Laden is dead, a killer has been killed, and justice has been done-but bin Ladenism persists, because the conditions that created it remain prevalent in much of the Arab-Asian region. The United States and allies will justifiably enjoy a sense of political vindication, and intelligence and operational success. Tens of thousands of families around the world, in the Islamic and Western realms, have suffered the pain of al-Qaeda's criminal attacks, and now they will feel a small but vital sense of relief. We should all rejoice at their satisfaction.

The celebrations, though, should not cause us to repeat the same mistake on bin Laden's death that many around the world made during his life-to exaggerate the man and the institution of al-Qaeda, and to downplay the operational political dynamics that have consistently defined his world and ours. When we again explore policy options to address the terrorism phenomenon that al-Qaeda crafted into a global enterprise, we should act upon two key facts.

First, bin Laden, al-Qaeda and many smaller copy-cat organizations it spawned in recent decades are small, clandestine, cult-like movements that have gained no traction among the masses of citizens in the Arab-Asian region that is the heartland of Islamic societies. Arabs, Asians and other Muslims have regularly repudiated bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri's repeated attempts to rally public opinion to their cause. Bin Ladenism and associated terrorist groups must be fought with the police tools used to fight cults and gangsters, not the global ideological and military weapons that waged the battle against Communism or Fascism. The death of the charismatic leader will diminish al-Qaeda even further, given its top-heavy cult-like nature, the fact that it never connected widely with its preferred Arab-Islamic audiences, and has been hit hard by coordinated counter-terrorism actions around the world.

Second, bin Laden's death should force us to remember the reasons for al-Qaeda's birth. This movement crystallized and expanded in the decade from 1991 to 2001 primarily as a reactionary response to policies by three principal parties-Arab autocrats, Israel and the United States-that angered it to the point of feeling that Islam itself was under assault and needed to be protected through a defensive military holy war, or jihad. The vast majority of Muslims thought the bin Laden response was nonsense. But, much more importantly, clearly documented majorities of Arabs (Muslims and Christians alike) and many other Muslims around the world shared the basic grievances that bin Laden articulated. These were mainly about three inter-connected issues that al-Qaeda defined as: predatory American and other Western policies that sought to dominate the Islamic world with their armies, economies and culture; Israel's assault on Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab rights, with full Western backing; and the abusive, un-Islamic conduct of autocratic or dictatorial Arab police states that were structurally supported by the United States and other Western powers. The politically important aspect of this is not about bin Laden's complaints. It is the fact that these same grievances-the Arabs' and Muslims' "humiliation and contempt" that he spoke of often-have been and remain very widely shared across the entire Arab-Islamic world, which keeps open the door for bin Ladenism to persist.

In the post-bin Laden world, therefore, moving toward a safer, more stable world requires focusing on the legitimacy of these important and pervasive grievances, and then working sensibly to resolve them. It is worth recalling that foreign armies in Islamic societies were the two principal catalysts for al-Qaeda's initial birth and expansion-the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Saudi Arabia. So removing American, British and other foreign armies from wars they wage in Islamic-majority societies would seem to be a pivotal factor in moving toward the total defeat and disintegration of al-Qaeda and its clones. …

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