For much of this morning, as the media pored over the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, BBC newscasters seemed intent on asking one question to any US official they happened to be interviewing. ‘Are you not disturbed’, they wanted to know, ‘by the jubilation shown by the American public at bin Laden’s death?’ How else, one might wonder, did they expect Americans to respond to the death of the man who engineered the wanton slaughter of 9/11, and whom they had been pursuing for almost a decade?
But while American jubilation is understandable, it is also, in a sense, misplaced. As a symbolic act, bin Laden’s death is highly significant. But in terms of changing the reality on the ground, it is relatively meaningless. Far from being the grand orchestrator of a worldwide jihad, as he has come to be perceived, bin Laden has for most of the past decade been a marginal figure. As an organization al-Qaeda barely exists. Al-Qaeda Central – its hardcore leadership – consisted of bin Laden, his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and a handful of associates in Pakistan. The organization has been rent by internal division, particularly between Saudi, Egyptian and Libyan supporters, and decimated by counter-terrorist forces that have killed or imprisoned many of its leaders.
Bin Laden’s death is likely to make little difference to the war in Afghanistan. That war might have begun as a result of bin Laden seeking refuge there, but al-Qaeda has played almost no role in the fighting. The resistance to Western forces over the past decade has come from the Taliban, not al-Qaeda, and bin Laden’s death will not change that.
Nor has al-Qaeda orchestrated a major successful terrorist attack for more than five years. The bombing last week of a café in Marrakesh, in which 16 people were killed, was a stark reminder of the nihilistic terror that jihadis continue to sow. But, outside of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, such terrorism remains relatively rare. And when such bombings do happen, the link to al-Qaeda is tenuous.
It is true that a number of al-Qaeda-inspired groups, such as the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have sprung up across the Middle East and North Africa. Despite their names, however, their relationship with al-Qaeda Central tends to be nominal. Each of these jihadist groups has grown out of local power struggles, not as part of a worldwide jihadi conspiracy.
In any case such groups have little support even within their own countries. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s regime was overthrown by a coalition of democratic forces in which even the powerful Muslim Brotherhood found itself on the margins. Similarly, in Yemen, which many thought might become al-Qaeda’s new Afghanistan, AQAP has played little role in the growing movement to unseat President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Groups such as AQAP may well exploit bin Laden’s death to unleash more terror. But we should not mistake such opportunism for ideological attachment or political strength.
Jihadi groups in the West have even less credible links to al-Qaeda. Terrorists such as the London bombers, or Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly in Sweden, have been driven not so much by political or religious ideology as by a nihilistic hatred for the society in which they live. It is a hatred bred not on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the madrassas of Pakistan but in the streets, schools and pubs of London, Paris and Stockholm. The death of bin Laden will change little for such jihadists.
The myth of bin Laden’s might has in recent years been stoked as much by Western fears as by the reality of al-Qaeda attacks. Bin Laden has become the spectre haunting the West, the architect not just of 9/11 but of a worldwide assault on Western values and way of life. It is a myth that has helped fuel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilize Pakistan, reinforce autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere, and erode rights and liberties, from the imposition of draconian domestic anti-terror laws to the obscenity of extraordinary rendition to the international affront that is Guantanamo Bay.
And yet the real challenge to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and its medieval, terror-laden theology, has come not from the West’s war on terror but from the Arab Spring, from the revolts that have shaken the region from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Syria, marginalized the jihadists who have played no part in the popular movements, and established a momentum for democratic change. These uprisings, and hope they engender, will transform the world far more than will bin Laden’s death.