Today, the Combating Terrorism Center published the translations of 175 letters of correspondence between Osama Bin Laden and leaders of other Islamic organizations throughout the Mideast and the Maghreb. The portrait that emerges is of a man who is a living legend among these organizations, but who gradually lost his relevance in the years since 2001.
The letters also portray internal frictions between groups on practice and ideology, which should warrant a re-evaluation on what radical Islam means and how we should approach it, given that it is not a monolithic phenomenon.
The correspondence is an invaluable, undiluted insight into the worldview of these organizations. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. We have seen that terrorism remains a highly relative concept. I think there are several lessons that should be drawn from the publication of these letters for the future of radical Islam and what to do to address it:
1. Radical Islamist organizations remain decentralized, but loosely connected along a general, rather vague ideology of jihad – a holy war against foreign occupation and oppression against Muslims. The recent case of a quintuple killing in Macedonia of four young men and a middle-aged fisherman without a criminal past by radical elements of the Muslim Albanian minority in the country raises doubt about the fragile ethnic peace in Macedonia and the stability of the wider Balkans. A brief war in 2001 against the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army already sets the precedent for a likely bloodier repeat if reprisals intensify.
2. The divisions and tensions within the radical Islamist community can be used in a well-known divide-and-conquer policy to reduce their overall effectiveness. Despite the ideological ties, however, many remain operationally independent, which would render this kind of policy ineffective. Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Shabab, for example, are geographically close, but fundamentally separate in their political aims and operations. A case-by-case approach is perhaps still the best option until an effective systemic counter-acting policy can be put in place.
3. The unknown whereabouts of Osama’s body has generated a mythology which will diminish somewhat over time, but never disappear, as radical Islam looks for a new unifying leader. The current contenders remain leaders of local and regional movements without much reach beyond them, but it is only a matter of time before a new central figure emerges – either by a long process of internal validation by these groups to promote a central leadership or a high-profile attack in some part of the world. However, if AQAP is a precedent, the idea of Islamic jihad has a bigger value and influence than the leading personality who embodies it for some period of time.
4. Watch our for the western Balkans. While much of the attention is focused on the daily attacks in Pakistan and the chronic violence of its FATA region, the Balkans also deserve attention. There are fundamentalist cells, financed from Saudi Arabia via NGO fronts, to take advantage of impoverished Muslim populations in the region to sustain themselves ideologically and economically; while states in the region try to follow the development and activities of these organizations, and incidents occur involving radical Islamist actors, the region deserves more international attention.
5. The gradual rehabilitation of political Islam by Turkey’s President Reccep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party does not preclude a future return to the Islamic foundation of Ottoman government a mere century ago. The fact that modern Turkey has not yet come to historical terms with its history of genocides against other peoples sets a worrisome precedent for this trend in the country.