Al-Qaeda and anti-terrorism industry face a common threat: Survival in a changing world

Captured Afghan Al-Qaeda members sit on a bench as they are presented to the media in Tora Bora. (File photo)

Captured Afghan Al-Qaeda members sit on a bench as they are presented to the media in Tora Bora. (File photo)
If Al-Qaeda suffered a major loss with the death of Osama Bin Laden, so did its nemesis: the vast governmental anti-terrorism bureaucracies and the sprawling private sector that has mushroomed around it.

Political violence is a fixture of human history and will remain so. But the specter of the scion of a wealthy family basing his lethal violence on an ideology that is at best often misunderstood and at worst vilified galvanized the fight against terrorism in ways no other ideological or liberation movement has done in modern history.

Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda may prove to be less sustainable than other lethal groups such as Afghanistan’s Taliban, Palestine’s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taibai.
But none of these groups sparked the growth of the governmental and private security and anti-terrorism industry and the fundamental changes in the balance between national security and personal freedom in the way Al-Qaeda did.

Nor did they launch operations that were as traumatic in their historic and societal impact as were the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Tower in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
The world may witness in the coming weeks and months jihadist attacks in response to Bin Laden’s demise, but they are likely to be the spurts of a dying organization.

Bin Laden started to overplay his hand as far back as 2003 and 2004 with his attacks on residential compounds in Saudi Arabia in which many innocent Muslims were killed. 

In 2011, he sealed his organization’s fate by failing to prevent history from bypassing him by adapting his ideology and strategy to the eruption of mass anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa. These protests constitute a rejection of Bin Laden’s use of indiscriminate violence as well as his puritanical and unreconstructed interpretation of Islam that seeks to resurrect the Caliphate.

That is bad news for the security and anti-terrorism industry. The death of the world’s most wanted man and the eventual demise of what is seen as the octopus web of global terrorism is bad for business. A reduced threat in a world of economic austerity will over time raise questions about the need for a vast labyrinth of governmental agencies and narrow the business opportunity for private companies.

The flood of comment following Bin Laden’s death is as much genuine analysis and forecasting as it is pundits, officials and company executives needing to justify their continued existence by arguing that the threat is as real with or without Bin Laden at the helm of Al Qaeda.

The stakes are high for the security and anti-terrorism industry. The Washington Post concluded in 2010 in an investigation entitled “Top Secret America” that US anti-terrorism operations had grown so unwieldy since the September 11 attacks that no one knew how much they cost, how many people were employed or how many programs there were.

That series portrayed an unprecedented network involving local police and US federal, state and military authorities feeding a growing database on thousands of American citizens and residents, even though many have never been charged with breaking the law. The Post reckoned that the network included 4,058 federal, state and local organizations, with at least 935 created since the 2001 attacks or newly focused on counter-terrorism.

The cost of the network is difficult to measure, but the US Department of Homeland Security said it had provided $31 billion in grants since 2003 to state and local governments for counter-terrorism measures, including $3.8 billion handed out last year, according to The Post.

In other words, Bin Laden sparked the emergence of a vast economic sector that provides jobs to thousands of people and generates billions of dollars in profits. It has a vested interest in ensuring that the public continues to perceive terrorism and political violence as an existential threat – one that justifies high public and private expenditure and a curtailing of personal freedom.

That perception is certain to survive Bin Laden for some time to come. It may even be strengthened by efforts by Al-Qaeda and other jihadists to prove that they are still alive and kicking and capable of pursuing their goals despite the loss of their charismatic leader and the stepped up counter-terrorism efforts to further diminish their ranks.

Yet, for both the jihadists and the security and counter-terrorism industry there is no escaping the fact that history has moved on. Both will have to adapt to reassert or reaffirm their relevance. In Al-Qaeda’s case demise is more likely than successful reassertion or adaptation. For the security and anti-terrorism industry, the agenda is more likely to be successful adjustment and a degree of retrenchment.


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