Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Osama bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 atrocity in the United States and various lesser terrorist outrages elsewhere, has been killed by American troops in his hideout in northern Pakistan. At last, the world can breathe more easily. But not many people were holding their breath anyway.
President Barack Obama issued the usual warning when he announced that bin Laden had been killed by American troops in a compound in the city of Abbottabad: “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us.” But that wasn’t quite right either.
No doubt attacks will continue to be made in the Arab world in the name of al-Qaida, but the original organization created by bin Laden has been moribund for years. Outside the Arab world, there have been no major terrorist assaults for about five years now, and bin Laden’s death is unlikely to change that. The whole enterprise was never what it seemed.
Bin Laden was a revolutionary before he was a terrorist. His goal was to overthrow existing Arab governments and replace them with regimes that imposed an extreme form of the Salafist (Islamist) doctrine on the people instead.
Once all the Muslims had accepted that doctrine, bin Laden believed, they would benefit from God’s active support and triumph over the outside forces that held them back. Poverty would be vanquished, the humiliations would end, and the infidels (“the Zionist-Crusader alliance”) would be defeated. It was essentially a form of magical thinking, but his strategic thinking was severely rational.
Successful revolutions bringing Salafist regimes to power were the key to success, but for the revolutions to succeed they needed to win mass support among Arab and other Muslim populations. Unfortunately, only a very small proportion of Muslims accepted Salafist ideas, another way had to be found to win them over. That’s where the terrorism came in.
Terrorism is a classic technique for revolutionaries trying to build popular support. The objective is to trick the enemy government, local or foreign, into behaving so badly that it alienates the population and drives people into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then, with mass popular support, the revolutionaries overthrow the government and take power.
This kind of terrorism has been used so often, and the strategy behind it is so transparently obvious, that no 21st-century government should ever fall for it. But if the terrorist attacks kill enough people, it is very hard for the government being attacked not to overreact, even if that plays into the terrorists’ hands. The pressure at home for the government to “do something” is almost irresistible.
The Bush administration duly overreacted to 9/11 and invaded two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, on a futile quest to “stamp out terrorism” — which was, of course, exactly what bin Laden and his colleagues wanted the United States to do.
However, almost ten years after 9/11, it is clear that bin Laden’s strategy has failed even though the United States fell into the trap he had set for it. Muslims everywhere were appalled by the suffering inflicted on Afghans and Iraqis, and many condemned the United States for its actions, but they didn’t turn to the Salafists instead.
When popular revolutions finally did begin to happen in the Arab world five months ago, they were non-violent affairs seeking the same democracy that secular countries in the West and elsewhere already enjoy. The Salafists have become virtually irrelevant.
Which is not to say that there will never be another terrorist attack on the United States. Bin Laden had not been in operational control of al-Qaida for many years, because regular communication with the outside world would have allowed U.S. forces to track him down long ago: the compound in Abbottabad had neither telephone nor internet connections. The real planners and actors are still out there somewhere.
The question is: what can the Salafists possibly do now that would put their project back on track? And the answer — the only answer — is to goad the United States into further violence against Muslims, in retaliation for some new terrorist atrocity against Americans.
There have been no major attempts by al-Qaida to attack the United States in the past ten years because it was already doing what the terrorists wanted. Why risk discrediting President George W. Bush by carrying out another successful terrorist attack, even if they had the resources to do so?
But the probability of a serious Salafist attempt to hit the U.S. again has been rising ever since American troops began to pull out of Iraq, and President Obama’s obvious desire to get out of Afghanistan raises it even further. Bin Laden’s strategy has not delivered the goods for the Salafists, but they have no alternative strategy.
Bin Laden’s death would provide a useful justification for another attempt to hit the U.S., but it wouldn’t really be the reason for it — and it probably wouldn’t succeed, either. Bin Laden’s hopes died long before he did. •
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.