The Death of Bin Laden – One Year On?
Bin Laden's death dealt a seriously blow to al-Qaeda. But are they down for the count?
It has been a year since Navy Seal Team Six raided a suspicious compound in the Northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed the world’s most wanted man.
The raid bought much joy and relief to people in the US and much embarrassment to the government of Pakistan. It was also a huge symbolic and strategic set back for al-Qaeda, an organisation which had already suffered significant losses in recent years thanks to US drone strikes.
Bin Laden has since been replaced by his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as Amir of the terrorist network. Zawahiri now attempts to preside over a battered and weakened central command along with another Egyptian senior commander, who goes by the nom de guerre, Saif al-Adel. However, morale is extremely low and most of their time is spent trying to evade the watchful eye of drone camera lenses.
There is no doubt that bin Laden was a significant loss and his death bought relief to many around the world. However, organisations are always more than individuals. The death of Zarqawi only had a minimal impact on al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has not been affected at all by the death of its spiritual leader, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have been downgraded but its franchises in other parts of the world seem to be thriving.
Boko Haram in Nigeria continues to wage its brutal sectarian war against Christians, with almost weekly bombings on churches. AQAP has come down from the mountains in southern Yemen and taken control of whole areas which it now governs. It has thrived since the ousting of Abdullah Saleh left the Yemeni military disunited and in disarray.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq seems to have re-constituted and are mounting deadly attacks every week. There is also evidence that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) is gaining in strength, numbers and resources. Then there is al-Shabab in Somalia to contend with.
So in spite of allied forces conducting successful kinetic operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the overall situation does not seem to have improved. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the Arab Spring, having successfully removed brutal dictators, has created a window of opportunity for al-Qaeda franchises to thrive. Secondly, al-Qaeda was never about bin Laden or any other individual. It is about ideas. It is about an ideology that can thrive anywhere in the world if it is afforded the oxygen to do so.
Al-Qaeda always viewed secular leaning Arab dictators as their number one enemy. They saw their presence as the key roadblock in preventing the emergence of jihadist rule throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Rulers such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Saleh did manage to contain al-Qaeda through a combination of brutal force and astute political manoeuvring.
That is the reason why there was always a ‘democratisation vs. stabilisation’ dilemma in Western capitals. Countries such as Libya and Yemen are currently not being governed effectively by anyone, they don’t have a competent and united military capable of conducting effective operations and the chain of command is practically non-existent.
In the end, groups like al-Qaeda will only be comprehensively defeated when people stop being attracted to their message and find other means through which they can pursue meaningful change. This entails understanding and undermining the ideology that inspires and guides groups like al-Qaeda and providing people with alternative messages that resonate.
Military force will remain an important part of counter-terrorism but right now we need to focus on the non-kinetic.
The next four to six years will prove decisive for al-Qaeda franchises around the world. This is their window of opportunity. Their once in a lifetime chance to take advantage of the confusion and in-fighting that is plaguing post-Arab spring countries. History tells us they will blow it but it also tells us that you can never be sure. However, one thing is for certain, the war against al-Qaeda is not over; in fact it may only be approaching the half way stage.
Ghaffar Hussein is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator.
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