Bin Laden’s death unlikely to inspire new generation of jihadists

Undated file picture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was photographed in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan. (File photo)

Undated file picture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was photographed in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan. (File photo)
It may have taken ten years to track him down, but the timing of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden could hardly have been better.

With Al Qaeda marginalized by the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, the risk of Mr. Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted fugitive, becoming a martyr capable of inspiring jihadists across the globe in death as much as he did while alive has been substantially diminished.

For the United States, Mr. Bin Laden’s death may not constitute an end to the struggle against terrorism. It does, however, provide an opportunity for closure on the traumatic September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington—the first time foreign forces had successfully hit targets on American soil. His death also boosts US military and intelligence credibility at a time that US forces are struggling to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan and the US and its allies are increasingly locked into a protracted battle in Libya.

Mr. Bin Laden’s public appeal had begun to wane long before the anti-government protests erupted in December of last year, demonstrating that authoritarian leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali could be toppled without engaging in terrorism.

Brutal crackdowns in Libya, Syria and Yemen have since come to mark those protests but demonstrators have shown that resilience and perseverance rather than violence serves their cause best. The crackdowns have so far failed to create an opportunity for Al Qaeda to reassert itself. The protesters moreover benefit from the fact that Mr. Bin Laden’s demise undermines claims by embattled Arab leaders such as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that foreign forces, including Al Qaeda, instigated the protests in their countries.

Mr. Bin Laden’s marginalization is evident across the greater Middle East’s major battlefields. In Afghanistan, it is the Taliban rather than Al Qaeda that constitutes the core of the resistance to the US-led foreign presence in the country.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has largely been quiet with the exception of a few attacks on military targets since protests demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted three months ago. Fighting an uphill battle to hold on to power, Mr. Saleh may be tempted to use AQAP to argue his value to the United States and Gulf countries. His ability to do so is, however, likely to be limited given his increased international isolation and the deep divisions in Yemen brought to the surface by the protests.

Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has staged only two major attacks in the last nine months. AQIM fighters last month launch an assault on an Algerian military post in the eastern town of Azaga, 140 kilometers from the capital Algiers, killing 14 Algerian soldiers and wounding 10 others.

AQIM still holds four of seven hostages captured last September in Niger’s uranium-mining town of Arlit in one of its most daring attacks to date. Three of the hostages—a French woman and a Togo and Madagascar national—were released on February 24 in the triangle where the borders of Algeria, Mali and Niger meet. The group is reported to be demanding a ransom of $120 million for the release of the remaining four French nationals. France has rejected the demand.

The kidnappings were the first to strike directly at foreign economic interests. The hostages were employees of Avera, a maker and operator of nuclear reactors that produces in Niger half of the uranium used in French nuclear reactors. The abductions constitute a setback for Avera’s efforts to reduce widespread local resistance to its operations on which AQIM has been feeding. Local NGOs and tribesmen accuse Avera of bribing Tuareg rebels, polluting underground aquifers, aggravating a chronic water shortage, and exposing its employees to uranium contamination.

If anything, last week’s bombing of a café in Morocco on Marrakesh’s popular Djemaa al-Fna square that killed 16 people, including 11 foreigners, illustrates Al Qaeda’s marginalization as well as the significantly reduced impact Mr. Bin Laden’s death is likely to have. Moroccan authorities have yet to determine who was responsible for the bombing and have not excluded Al Qaeda as a possible culprit.

Moroccan officials note that the bomb was professionally constructed with TATP and PETN compounds used by Al Qaeda and its affiliates in a series of earlier attacks, including shoe bomber Richard Reid’s 2002 attempt to down a transatlantic airliner, the July 7, 2005 London bombings, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt in December 2009 to down Northwest Flight 253 with an underwear bomb, and Najibullah Zazi’s plot to attack the New York subway system.

The Marrakesh bombing, this circumstantial evidence notwithstanding, is however far more likely to be the work of jihadists unaffiliated or at best with only tenuous links to Al Qaeda than an operation carried out by AQIM. Morocco like Libya has long been an AQIM weak spot in the Maghreb as well as the Sahel. 

AQIM efforts to incorporate the remnants of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group (MIFG) and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)—two groups formed in the 1990s by Al Qaeda-linked fighters that opted to chart an independent, nationally rather than globally-focused course—have largely failed. Moroccan jihadists with little if any connection to Al Qaeda have long figured prominently over the last decade in attacks such as the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and aborted attacks in Casablanca in 2007

The Marrakesh bombing coupled with Al Qaeda’s long waning appeal suggests that Mr. Bin Laden’s death will further diminish the group’s organizational capacity and lead to even greater independence of its various affiliates.

Greater independence may mean that tracking individuals and groups could become more complicated. It also means that jihadists will be more than ever dependent on some degree of grassroots support.

The good news is that this could prove increasingly difficult in a world in which peaceful mass protests have proven to be a far more effective than terrorism to topple authoritarian leaders and secure greater freedom.


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