Osama bin Laden killed after 3,519 days of freedom

Every September 11th on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks — year after year after year — I have marveled that Osama bin Laden should continue to remain at large and that so little domestic political pressure should be brought to bear on capturing or killing him.  But only five days ago, for the first time, did I write about it, asking why the most basic justice has not been done.  Today, by remarkable coincidence, comes the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed in a firefight in Pakistan, which President Obama announced with the words “justice has been done.”  Bin Laden was not the great strategist behind Al Qaeda — that ignoble distinction belongs to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who remains at large — but he was the master propagandist and, just as important, the essential fundraiser, drawing on his own resources and leveraging his Arabian peninsula roots (Zawahiri, by contrast, is a middle-class Egyptian) to extract contributions from Gulf Arabs, who donate the bulk of the money to jihadi groups.

This is not the end of Al Qaeda, or of Islamist movements generally, but it is a significant blow that comes at a spectacularly vulnerable moment for them. The 9/11 attacks were not, as many in the US imagine, a declaration of war on America; for Al Qaeda, the real battle was against the Arab dictatorships in Egypt (for Zawahiri) and Saudi Arabia (for bin Laden), against whom Al Qaeda and its predecessor organizations had been fighting for a decade before the US was ever brought into the war.  But in the 1990s, the Arab regimes succeeded in crushing these local Islamist movements (albeit at great human cost) which is what drove an Egyptian and a Yemeni into exile in Afghanistan, where they set about trying to regroup. The 9/11 attacks, then, were the act of a weakened movement trying to reclaim its ground by employing a jiujitsu move — one that would use America’s superior military power against itself — by goading the US into ill-conceived and potentially radicalizing action in the Middle East.  This worked, alas, and the Iraq war became a nightly recruiting video for Al Qaeda: the repetition of violent images, of innocents being killed, of sectarian bloodshed, forced apolitical moderates in the region to choose sides.  In this, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden were in perfect accord.  As Bush put it, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists” and this binary choice was precisely what bin Laden wished to assert as well because it is the moderates in the Arab world — those who were ‘asleep,’ in the jihadi parlance, because they did not actively confront their regimes — who were the true targets of the 9/11 attacks.  The Al Qaeda proposition to the people of the Arab world was simple: you must be for the Arab regimes or against them but you cannot remain neutral.  And its methods were equally straightforward: violence is the only tool that can force this polarity.

But then, within the last few months, something remarkable happened: millions of Egyptians and Tunisians and Yemenis and Syrians and Bahrainis took to the streets and overthrew their leaders — some of them, anyway — without using violence.  They had found a third way through the artificially binary worldview Al Qaeda had tried to impose: they could be against their regimes on democratic, not Islamist, grounds and they could use mass participation, not violence, to achieve their goals.  And it is these revolutions, more than the long wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, that have discredited the Al Qaeda ideology and left the organization fatally weakened at the very moment it has lost its most visible leader.

As we saw ten years ago, it is when Al Qaeda is weakest that it undertakes its most terrifying actions so the possibility of violent, dramatic reprisals remains high.  But with millions of Egyptians and Tunisians peacefully laying claim to their futures who, now, will be persuaded to follow a leaderless organization holed up in the Pakistan frontier that preaches constant violence?

Update (8 May): Issandr el Amrani, an always insightful Middle East commentator who blogs for The Arabist and is (like me, though later) an alum of the Cairo Times, makes a similar point in this post that ran on 2 May but that I did not see until later.  It provides valuable context on the different political trends that have arisen over the last few decades in opposition to the authoritarian regimes in the region.

Also, I posted a fascinating visualization showing how the news about Osama bin Laden broke on Twitter.

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