Shadow Government

Bin Laden’s death and the al Qaeda debates, part three

Having looked in previous posts at two of the major analytical frameworks for understanding al Qaeda and bin Laden, it is now possible to examine the differing conclusions that each position might draw from the death of bin Laden. Implications of the Majority Position If the majority opinion on al Qaeda and bin Laden is ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Having looked in previous posts at two of the major analytical frameworks for understanding al Qaeda and bin Laden, it is now possible to examine the differing conclusions that each position might draw from the death of bin Laden.

Implications of the Majority Position

If the majority opinion on al Qaeda and bin Laden is correct, then the inspiration for a dying group is now gone and there are no similarly charismatic figures on the horizon. The putative deputy and successor of bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has seriously quarreled with other jihadists, alienating them over the course of the 1990s, and does not have the popular appeal that bin Laden had. Other potential leaders have drawbacks as well: Either they are too little known outside the group to be able to inspire devotion and therefore attacks or, like Zawahiri, they do not have the sort of personality that will be able to attract believers. Al Qaeda, as an organized group, could just fade away, losing whatever little cohesion it had with the death of the only person holding the loose confederation together. The tenuous connections that the group had with other jihadists in places like Somalia, Yemen, and northern Pakistan will certainly disappear, and these mujahideen are likely to return to righting national wrongs rather than focusing on the United States. Al Qaeda’s appeal to the rest of the Muslim world could simply go away, replaced by a turn to the economic and political concerns that al Qaeda exploited to deflect support to the group.

The one remaining threat is the potential for revenge attacks, especially after the traditional 40-day mourning period. Once these are thwarted, there is little need to worry about attacks on the U.S., since other groups will return to local affairs, individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere will no longer be inspired to carry out attacks, and the tiny central core — already decimated by U.S. strikes — will be in hiding and unable to plot and plan. On Afghanistan in particular, the majority view would suggest that we now have a better chance than ever to peel away all the Taliban, even Mullah Omar’s group, from al Qaeda. They had no loyalty to al Qaeda, only to bin Laden personally, and, with his death, their oath of fealty is no longer valid. If the U.S. is able to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda, then there is no reason for our troops to remain in the country. After all, al Qaeda was the real threat to Americans, not the Taliban.

The implications for Pakistan are also generally favorable based on a supposition that, as al Qaeda collapses as a group, the U.S. will be able to stop its strikes. This will neutralize the homeland threat from groups like the TTP, which were only talked into attacking the U.S. as revenge for the deaths of Pakistanis. Indeed, groups like the TTP will no longer have any ties to al Qaeda and should therefore switch their focus entirely to the Pakistani government. Even here the news is quite good, since that government and army were attacked because, at the behest of the U.S., they carried out incursions into Pashtun territory to find al Qaeda members. Without al Qaeda, the Pakistani Army can return to its bases, and therefore attacks by groups like the TTP will slowly but surely fade away.

Implications of the Minority Position

This rather optimistic scenario is directly contradicted by the minority view. It follows from this position that, though its commander and visionary leader is dead — a serious blow to any group — the organization, discipline, strategies, and objectives of al Qaeda remain. The organization’s leading cadre will simply find and appoint another commander in chief and continue to pursue the same strategies and objectives. Once this commander (amir) is in power, he will need to reaffirm control over the branches (like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and al Qaeda’s relationships with groups like the Taliban. It is here that there might be a meeting of the two positions, since it is by no means a given that the new leader will, in fact, be able to do so with every group. There is then a potential window of opportunity for negotiations of some sort with these jihadists to split them from al Qaeda. The success or failure of the new amir in this endeavor will depend on his personality, but also the other groups’ true commitments to al Qaeda’s ideology, strategies, and objectives. Given their long-standing ties to al Qaeda, however, it is unlikely that the affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, or the rump group in Iraq will repudiate their connection to the organization.

In Afghanistan the threat remains the same, primarily because Mullah Omar and al Qaeda had a greater commitment to each other than solely through bin Laden: Zawahiri and the rest of the leadership cadre of al Qaeda have also sworn an oath of fealty to him as the Commander of the Faithful. Not incidentally, the TTP have also sworn this same oath. At the same time, other so-called Taliban, i.e. Afghan insurgents who are not directly tied to Mullah Omar or al Qaeda, might now be more willing to negotiate, as the majority opinion would also suggest. The threats from Pakistan are unchanged by the death of bin Laden because the TTP, LeT, and other Pakistani jihadi groups are no longer the organizations that they were when they were founded. They have been radicalized by their relationship with al Qaeda as a direct consequence of that organization’s strategy to unify all jihadist groups. In addition, because al Qaeda will not collapse as an organization, the United States will be forced to maintain pressure on the group through strikes in Pakistan, which will continue to radicalize Pakistanis. This will in turn lead some of them, at least, to consider attacking the American homeland.

Meanwhile, the strategic objectives of al Qaeda in its global fight are still operative: Attacks on the United States are desired but not strictly necessary to achieve the slow takeover of territory around the Muslim world and the creation, eventually, of an Islamic state that will follow its ideology. The radicalization of jihadi groups and the unifying of the jihad into the desired global battle will continue unabated even without bin Laden. But if the U.S. is not directly threatened, will Americans be willing to engage in a seemingly unending fight?

My final post will suggest how the new captured documents might support one or the other of these positions.

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