This could be the beginning of the end of the serious threat posed by the Global Islamist Terrorism Movement (GITM). The death of Osama bin Laden is just one of several critical setbacks for GITM. Over the first quarter of this year, we have seen popular uprisings topple governments in a number of Arab states. The movement still continues today in a protracted conflict in Libya as well as fledgling uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. The combined achievements of the sweeping change brought about by the Arab Spring and death of bin Laden have irreparably weakened GITM. It is important to understand the signs of GITM’s decline and what it means for the future of Islamist violence. Moreover, we must consider how U.S. counter-terrorism policy should move forward.
GITM is a movement within ‘Political Islam,’ and is characterized by the intention and capability of Islamist terrorist groups to operate internationally. This differentiates the movement from other kinds of Islamist terrorism. For example, the reason the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 was not because they harbored Islamist terrorists (which they had for some time as President Bill Clinton bombed Al-Qaeda training camps in the 1990s), but rather that these particular Islamist terrorists had proven themselves intent on — and capable of — attacking the U.S. homeland.
It is important to point out that bin Laden and his associates began as state-based actors, whose initial aim was to overthrow Arab leaders in the hopes of bringing about a renewal of the Caliphate and a reordering of Arab society along fundamentalist Islamic teachings. They ultimately failed to bring about their Islamist revolutions domestically and shifted to a global mission, focusing on the U.S. and the West. That direct threat to the U.S. is now in decline.
The significance of the Arab Spring movement cannot be overstated. Originally, it was the intent of bin Laden and his associates to bring about this sort of domestic Islamist revolutions in places like Egypt. Al-Qaeda sought to use the environment of political repression and economic disenfranchisement to incite Islamist fervor. This is why the success of the Arab Spring movement is even more crippling to Al-Qaeda than the death of bin Laden. The repressive environment that existed under illiberal Arab regimes is lost to them now and is being recommitted toward a democratic end.
While the loss of bin Laden is mostly symbolic, let us not underestimate the power of a symbol. Bin Laden was the embodiment of the War on Terror and, while alive, constituted the single greatest threat to America. This was not primarily due to his personal role in Al-Qaeda’s attacks around the world, as Al-Qaeda’s organization is increasingly diffuse and disconnected. However, bin Laden was a powerful symbol to his organization and to the Al-Qaeda ‘brand’ in gaining members, acquiring financing, and spreading their franchised organizations around the world. The loss of bin Laden weakens the ability of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to grow and operate.
The weakening of GITM does not mean the end of Islamist terrorism. Rather, Islamist terrorism will persist, though the international financial and organizational networks that empower it will likely weaken. Ultimately, the beginning of the end of global Islamist networks means the reversion to the domestic terrorist vision of the early Islamist movement. The trend in Islamist violence will become increasingly domestic in nature, occurring in countries of origin against state governments. This transition to an earlier phase in Islamist terrorism will require a new approach to US global counter-terrorism policy. The U.S. will have to craft a policy that emphasizes diplomacy, strengthening partner capacity, and promoting gradual liberalization efforts in partner countries.
The direct causes of radicalization are nebulous. However, low opinion of the political process combined with a belief that the government is incapable of reform — increases the likelihood that public support for terrorist activity will grow. U.S. policy should focus on assisting partner nations in building the capacity for governance as well as security. As has been seen in the Arab Spring, the decision for the state not to use violence may be the most important decision for long-term security and stability. Indeed, a lot is riding on the political experiments currently under way in the Middle East.
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