Is the World Safer After Osama Bin Laden’s Death?
Does the death of Osama Bin Laden on Sunday, nine years and seven months since 9/11, mean that the world is a safer place?
Officials around New York and New Jersey did not think so, says the Star-Ledger. In the wake of President Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New Jersey Transit both increased their security, especially in lower Manhattan, site of Ground Zero.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, the killing of Bin Laden does not mean the end of Al Qaeda:
Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian No. 2, has long played a crucial role as Al Qaeda’s COO. And Al Qaeda is more of a loose network than a tightly structured organization, and that has become even more true in recent years.
Al Qaeda has networks that span the Arabian peninsula to North Africa and in places such as Somalia, Indonesia, Sweden and Norway, says the Wall Street Journal:
Recent years have seen “the rapid decentralizing of al Qaeda operations,” said Toby Feakin, director of national security at London-based defense think tank Royal United Services Institute. While “a chapter has ended” for al Qaeda with Mr. bin Laden’s death, he said, the story is far from over.
Mr. bin Laden’s legacy is too large to erase quickly. His terror group numbered less than 200 before the Sept. 11 attacks, but today it is vast and in many ways more far-reaching than before the U.S. sought to take it down.
With the “old guard” of Al Qaeda members “decimated” — for one, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, principal architect of the 9/11, was captured in 2003 and is now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay — Al Qaeda’s operatives have become more diffuse:
The most potent and active offshoot group is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, Mr. bin Laden’s former secretary in Afghanistan who escaped to Iran, was arrested, and subsequently extradited to Yemen in 2003. He escaped from prison in 2006 and spearheaded the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda in 2009.
More than any other group, AQAP serves as connective tissue between al Qaeda branches in other regions. Mr. Wuhayshi is buttressed in that regard by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric who gained a following via his Internet sermons and has become a key recruiter.
Awlaki is thought to have met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who was studying in Yemen before he tried to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane on Christmas Day, 2009.
Kristof in the New York Times also points out that killing Bin Laden in 2002 or 2003 would have mattered more. But popular opinion in Pakistan and other Arab states has moved against him and he is now, says Kristof, “marginalized,” and even more so as the Arab Spring protests that started earlier this year. Indeed, Al Qaeda itself has been “sidelined” by the protests. Another New York Times article on Bin Laden’s legacy in the Arab world says that his death serves as an “epitaph for another era.” More than three-fifths of the population of the Arab world is under 30 years old and the 9/11 bombings are a “childhood memory, if that. Bin Laden may emerge as a footnote:
Bin Laden’s death will inevitably be seen as another signpost in the hesitant evolution of political Islam’s relationship with the Arab state. In 2001, Bin Laden was often seen as a symbol of an embattled religion, the very personification of people’s frustrations at a faith seemingly overwhelmed by a Western power. A corollary was the Islamist activists’ own repression within the Arab world; many have noted that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, was radicalized in the jails of authoritarian Egypt.
A sense of helplessness, be it in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods or Riyadh’s most traditional quarters, appeared to underline his support, particularly for a movement that eschewed rigorous ideology for a fetishized violence that served as an end in itself.
“After the cold war was over and America was the only power, he was the only one counter-balancing America,” said Islam Lotfy, an activist and leader of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest mainstream Islamic group.
The New York Times cites a Pew Research Center poll that suggests the growing irrelevance of Bin Laden, with his support in Jordan falling from 56 percent in 2003 to 13 percent this year, with only 1 percent in Lebanon supporting him. While some in Egypt and the Palestinian territories still support him, those numbers have also decline in recent years.
Writing in the Guardian, Julian Borger notes that, while Bin Laden’s killing has “provided a moment of catharsis that had eluded America for a decade,” we need to remember that his martyrdom could be a “more powerful factor than the absence of any plausible successor.” Just last week a bomb detonated in a busy tourist cafe in Marrakech, killing at least 15, including French and British nationals. Fernando Reinares, a terrorism expert at Spain’s Royal Elcano Institute, notes that Morocco and its monarchy are “‘a target” for Al Qaeda: Osama Bin Laden is gone, but the “constant menace of the bomb in a cafe” may never go away.
Photo from Fotopedia.