On Bin Laden's Death, Hold Your Applause

No one likes a Debbie Downer. Especially amidst raucous celebrations that have erupted following the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden — the world’s most hunted terrorist and the larger-than-life figurehead of Al-Qaeda. Yet, even in a time such as this, when a high-five and a toast to freedom seem entirely apropos, the sobering reality is that this historic event is more symbolic than consequential.

Bin Laden’s death deals no real blow to the deep, amorphous, structure of Al-Qaeda. The group’s tentacles do not stretch out from a central base (al-Qaeda is Arabic for “base”) but rather, from a syndicate of nebulous global networks. The fact that bin Laden was found in a million-dollar mansion near Islamabad with no telephone or Internet access only underscores his irrelevance in recent years. 

The vision of bin Laden’s likely successor, Ayman Zawahiri — to transform the terrorist organization from a cohesive, tight-knit group of Afghan warlords to a broader philosophical movement — ultimately succeeded. The news of bin Laden’s death would have been a game changer years ago, but today its sweetness is soured by Al-Qaeda’s diffusion into regional, headless affiliates.  

Just four days ago, a powerful terrorist bombing ripped through a restaurant in Jemma el-Fnaa, a touristic haven in Marrakech, Morocco. Sixteen people, mostly foreigners, were killed instantly and more than twenty were wounded. In this, the deadliest attack in the country since 2005, reports suggest that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a regional offshoot of bin Laden’s clan, was responsible. AQIM has effectively executed nine large-scale attacks since its formation in 2002, many of which were directed at American targets in North Africa.

In addition to AQIM, other groups have grabbed the international spotlight in recent years including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and Al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY). The rise in networks inspired by the message of bin Laden suggests that local terror leaders have the desire and capability to execute attacks against the United States and its allies. Moreover, the operational capacity of these groups never depended entirely on bin Laden. A U.S. Congressional research report released in January noted that Al-Qaeda has nearly 70 affiliate cells dispersed throughout the world that are “semi-autonomous or self radicalized” with “only peripheral or ephemeral ties to either the core cadre in Pakistan or affiliated groups elsewhere.” Their attacks have included: the bombing of the USS Cole, the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot, and the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot (all by AQAP); the 2003 bombings of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, and the attempted attack on the USS Kearsarge in 2006 (all by AQI); and the shipment of parcel bombs to Jewish places of worship in Chicago (AQI).

The Al-Qaeda network has been described as a present-day form of the Lernaean Hydra — a snake-like water monster in Greek mythology who grew two heads for every one cut off. Now, as bin Laden’s head drifts out to sea and the hunt for the terrorist straw boss comes to an end, the serpent recoils. But this is not the end. Just beneath the celebratory uproar, the beast, hushed temporarily, is growing two more heads. The vision always outlasts the visionary. 

Photo CreditChris.M.G

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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