Will the death of Bin Laden spawn the re-birth of a movement?

There is no doubt that the death of Bin Laden represents a great success for US counter-terrorism and a huge blow to Al-Qa'ida. But, after ten years, Bin Laden has spawned a movement and an ideology not requiring a figurehead.

By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst, RUSI 

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

While we witnessed scenes of jubilation at Ground Zero and outside the White House, Al Qaida's affiliates immediately condemned the elimination of their ideological leader and readily pointed out that their revenge will be rapid and devastating. The Pakistani Taliban, among others, warned of inevitable attacks against the US military in Afghanistan and the Somali-based Al-Shabab made it clear that they will avenge Bin Laden's death with destructive explosions.[1]

It is perhaps astounding that the demise of Al-Qa'ida's leader has come only a few months away from the tenth anniversary of 9/11, almost as an unexpected way to mark that tragic event which significantly redefined the international security environment of the  Twenty-first Century. Yet, Bin Laden's death cannot be read as the epilogue in the fight against jihadist terrorism; shortly after the devastating attacks in New York and Washington, it became clear that such a fight was not, and could not be, a confrontation against a single man but that it should rather be conducted as a battle against an extremist ideology which has rapidly won over terrorist groups pursuing similar causes in specific regions around the world, as well as disenfranchised and disaffected individuals in the West who find such ideology a unifying force, something in which they could more suitably identify themselves. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that in intelligence circles, no one is under any illusion that the jihadist threat will come to an end in the foreseeable future. In the aftermath of the successful operation by US Special Forces aimed at eliminating Bin Laden, CIA Director Leon Panetta has understandably acknowledged that Al-Qa'ida will 'almost certainly' try to avenge the death of his leader;[2] as a result of this, security warnings have quickly been issued to US citizens around the world and US embassies have been put on alert on fears of possible reprisal attacks.[2] A similarly cautious approach has been adopted in the UK, with Prime Minister David Cameron welcoming the news of Bin Laden's elimination while pointing out the need for particular vigilance in the weeks ahead.[3]

How the jihadist terrorist threat might present itself

Bin Laden's demise has delivered a devastating, probably decisive, blow to Al-Qa'ida's organisational core which was directly responsible for masterminding 9/11 and several other 'spectacular' attacks around the world up until 2006. It is extremely unlikely that the already weakened inner group will be able to recover and reassume that important operational role which had already faded away long before Bin Laden's death. A different issue, though, concerns the future of the ideology his organisation contributed to promote, together with the willingness, and ability, of his followers and affiliates to continue the struggle against the 'far enemy' (the US) and its allies. Although, on the one hand, his assassination may have irremediably undermined Bin Laden's ideological appeal which was greatly boosted by his  myth of invincibility,[4] on the other hand, he will continue to be perceived and presented as the ultimate 'martyr' of the jihadist cause, thereby offering an even more powerful argument for jihadists looking to radicalise others.

In the immediate future, it is not unreasonable to expect a potential spike in terrorist activity around the world mainly, although not exclusively focused against US and Western targets. Such activity could take the form of isolated, improvised, almost random, attacks by radicalised individuals, not necessarily linked to any groups or cells, who simply wish to take their revenge. This 'emotional' reaction is probably inevitable, in light of the highly symbolic value of the individual they seek to avenge. A similar terrorist activity is certainly harder, if not impossible, to detect insofar as it does not require a great deal of planning and preparation. At the same time, its impact, and the potential damage caused, is likely to be limited in scope, provided such attempts will ever be successfully executed.

For the medium term there is a greater chance of witnessing more sophisticated terrorist attacks planned by structured cells with varying levels of training and skills. However, it is important to point out that similar attempts would not come simply as a result of, and reaction to, Bin Laden's death. Instead the execution of plots being planned to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 could merely be accelerated by recent events. Yet, with intelligence agencies around the world already on high alert over such a scenario,  the likelihood of such plots being disrupted in time is increased, although the possibility of them succeeding can never be completely ruled out.

Will Al-Qa'ida End?

The long term consequences of Bin Laden's death are probably less drastic and decisive for Al-Qa'ida's future than one might have expected only a few years ago. Although other charismatic and leading figures may emerge within the wider movement, a new leader for AQ core is not likely and, perhaps, not even necessary. For this reason, Bin Laden's huge symbolic power in the history of jihadism will probably remain forever undisputed.

 At the same time though, as it has already been pointed out, the decline of AQ's core was already under way and recent events will, therefore, only accelerate such a path. Unfortunately this in itself does not mitigate the severity of the terrorist threat represented by AQ. . Far from being a terrorist organisation in a traditional sense, nowadays AQ is more appropriately characterised as a movement fuelled by the extremist discourse of the Islamist ideology which Bin Laden fully embraced and further developed.

This is the reason why it is partly incorrect to characterise Bin Laden's elimination as the decapitation of a powerful terrorist organisation; many traditional terrorist groups such as the Real IRA, the Shining Path and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, have not been able to survive the death or capture of their leader,[5] who generally provided vital inspiration, but also clear direction and planning. The current jihadist movement may require overall coordination (and this is probably what Bin Laden had been providing since 2006) but it does not need hierarchical direction and in fact its strength relies on the unpredictable character of its structure, extensively loose and dispersed. If anything, AQ core's swift decline will provide an opportunity for affiliated groups to more rapidly fill the void left so as to become more relevant and immediate threat for the West, a trend which, nonetheless, has been progressively asserting itself during the last few years. 

Al-Qa'ida became known as an impressively well-established organisation in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. Over the course of the decade, it turned into a powerful brand, able to provide a unifying discourse to numerous groups often pursuing far more regional and circumscribed objectives. The 'network of networks'[6] structure that followed rapidly brought to a decentralisation of command and control, planning and training functions which worked well with the weakening deterioration of AQ's core capabilities resulting from the initial stages of the Afghanistan campaign. Most plots up until 2006 emanated from Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has now more recently been replaced by an increasing involvement of figures and groups operating in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Mali, bringing a greater decentralisation of the threat.

Indeed, the AQ phenomenon now no longer requires networks at all. Readily available extremist propaganda has facilitated the process of online radicalisation. This in turn has created the process of home-grown terrorism where individuals born and grown up in Western countries are willing to embrace the jihadist cause.  They are contributing to a 'second wave'[7]  of terrorist activity which relies on a pool of unconnected individuals. This is well exemplified by the unsuccessful attacks attempted by Faisal Shazhad in New York in 2009, and Umar Farouk Abdumutallab, the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009, among others. In both cases, single individuals, rather than cells, have tried to carry out poorly planned attacks.

This trend may well continue in the future, with such improvised - almost random - attempts accompanying more sophisticated ones. Of course, the extent of the threat will very much depend on two factors: the ability of new leaders, and groups, to establish the highly efficient structure that would be required to mastermind and execute spectacular attacks of the scale of 9/11, and the availability of recruits to carry them out. The latter, in particular, is the condition sine qua non for the continuation of 'global jihad' and, for this reason, its removal is paramount. Although this can be partially pursued through a recalibration of Western foreign policy, such change can only be completely achieved through a realisation of the irrelevance of the jihadist ideology by those whom are supposed to be the target audience of AQ's discourse.

Ultimately, Bin Laden's death may well prove that the defeat of AQ as an ideological movement depends only in part on the 'hard power' of the US and the West and much more critically on the 'soft power' of their liberal and democratic values which are at the heart of the spontaneous popular movements that have shaken Middle Eastern politics over the last months. Far from embracing the extremist method of global jihad and rather keen to achieve a political settlement which inevitably and clearly rules out the radical idea of a global caliphate, the promoters of the so-called Arab Spring, the younger section of the population in many Arab countries, undoubtedly represent the most powerful and effective weapon which can be employed to finally bring Al-Qa'ida, and the extremist ideology it embeds, to an end.



1. 'Osama Bin Laden: African Leaders Hail Killing', BBC Online, 2 May 2011

2. 'CIA: AL Qaeda will 'almost certainly' try to Avenge Bin Laden', Reuters, 2 May 2011

3. 'Osama Bin Laden: African Leaders Hail Killing', BBC Online

4. 'UK Vigilance Urged after Osama Bin Laden Death', BBC Online, 2 May 2011

5. Richard A. Clarke 'Bin Laden is Dead. Al Qaida 's Not', The New York Times, 2 May 2011

6. Audrey Kurth Kronin, 'How Al Qaeda End?', in International Security, vol.31, n.1, summer 2006, p.18

7. Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria 'Terrorism: the New Wave', in RUSI Journal, vol.155, n 44, August/September 2010, p.26

8. Ibid.

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