Al Qaeda has long separated its struggle into a campaign on two fronts, against the “near enemy” in the shape of corrupt Middle Eastern governments, and the “far enemy”, the decadent, oppressive West led by the USA. Neither front is going well for them.
Even before the death of bin Laden, Al Qaeda was a fading force in the Middle East. Despite the welcome opportunities it has provided for gloating at the grief it has caused the US, seen by many Arabs’ as their persecutor in chief, Al Qaeda has never won the lasting support of people in the region or the wider Islamic world. Its ideology and methods have always seemed deranged to most of those it was purporting to represent. Any lingering pretence at being a defender of Arabs and Muslims at large was demolished several years ago by a string of nihilistic atrocities that killed many more innocent Muslims than supposed foreign oppressors - for example, the bombing of a wedding reception at a hotel in Jordan in 2005.
In addition, all of this death and destruction has visibly failed to achieve any of Al Qaeda’s stated goals. There are still lots of non-Muslim troops in Islamic countries - partly because of Al Qaeda, rather than despite them. Nor has it managed to dislodge even one corrupt Arab government. The fact that some of these regimes have now been removed by peaceful pro-democracy street protestors, throws Al Qaeda’s failure into even starker relief. Its fade into political irrelevance will continue and be advanced by every successful “Arab Spring” uprising.
The Americans are, once again, fulfilling Churchill’s famous dictum that “you can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted every other possibility”.
This does not mean Al Qaeda terrorism will end instantly. The continuation of some Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia’s, that embody Al Qaeda’s portrait of corruption and perfidy, will allow it to retain a shred of credibility. On an operational level, despite the materials found in bin Laden’s hiding place showing that he was still more involved in planning and coordination of attacks than had been recently thought, Al Qaeda remains a diffuse organization. Its various regional offshoots in North Africa (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - AQIM), the Arabian peninsula (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP) and Somalia (al-Shabab), still have viable grievances, an environment in which they can function and an autonomous capacity to wreak havoc. Some fighters indoctrinated in 'bin Ladenism' will have become ingrained in their violent, outlaw lifestyles and carry on their struggle even if they lose focus on what it was all about in the first place. A similar phenomenon occurred with European terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof gang) in Germany, whose violence dribbled miserably on for years after the death of its leadership and disappearance of its objectives. And, of course, the simple answers and attention-grabbing violence of extremists will not lose their eternal appeal to some angry, disaffected young men.
The successful operation to eliminate bin Laden is perhaps the most eye-catching evidence so far that the Americans are, once again, fulfilling Churchill’s famous dictum that “you can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted every other possibility”. In eight years the Bush administration blundered into one phantom “war on terror”, two real ones in Iraq and Afghanistan and trashed their country’s reputation via the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, only to get absolutely nowhere in their quest to nobble bin Laden. It is alleged by one Washington insider that George Bush’s idea of leading the “war on terror” was to issue regular memos asking bluntly “why haven’t we caught bin Laden yet?” - and that some subordinates had to be stopped from responding equally succinctly with one saying “because he is hiding”. The rather more sophisticated approach adopted by the Obama administration is finally starting to get results.
Even before the death of bin Laden, Al Qaeda was a fading force in the Middle East. Despite the welcome opportunities it has provided for gloating at the grief it has caused the US, seen by many Arabs’ as their persecutor in chief, Al Qaeda has never won the lasting support of people in the region or the wider Islamic world
Attention has been focused on carefully planned and targeted drone attacks that were whittling away Al Qaeda’s leadership structure even before the assassination of bin Laden. Ending the torture of detainees has meant this strategy can be based on more reliable intelligence than the “I’ll say anything if it makes you stop drowning me” dross that the US authorities swamped themselves in for years. Obama’s treatment of Al Qaeda as essentially a criminal problem on a grand scale, placing the emphasis on painstaking intelligence-gathering, investigation and enforcement (with the occasional Sweeney-esque liberal interpretation of the term “resisting arrest”) is what should have been adopted in the first place and it will continue to get results.
The Obama administration’s smarter approach has been highlighted by its handling of the aftermath of bin Laden’s death. Rather than stirring up more animosity by parading photos of his disfigured corpse, the administration chose instead to release some of Osama’s home videos, showing him sat in a dopey hat admiring himself on the telly, muffing his lines TV blooper style in outtakes from his video statements and revealing that he died his hair in the manner of a naff quiz show presenter before making broadcasts to his followers. Puncturing the myth of Osama is definitely a more productive way to go than helping to enhance it.
The answer to the “What Happens Next?” question, then, is that Al Qaeda keeps on losing, even if it will remain dangerous for a while yet. The “Arab Spring” uprisings will continue to marginalise it further in the Middle East - demonstrating that democracy, and the yearning for it, is stronger than we sometimes give it credit for. And a vastly improved American strategy under President Obama to counteract Al Qaeda has begun to degrade its capacity for terrorist attacks outside the region.
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