By Omar Ashour
He was not a hierarchical Al-Qaeda leader but an inspirational head, a role better played when dead than alive.
He lived a hero, he died a martyr…if they killed one Osama, a thousand others will be born,” says a comment on a Facebook group called “We are all Osama bin Laden.” The group was formed one hour after US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the Al Qaeda leader’s death. That Facebook group already has around 30,000 “likes.” Moreover, there are more than 50 similar groups on Facebook.
Reaction to Bin Laden’s death on Al Jazeera and other Arabic news outlets has been mixed. Some view the man considered a mass murderer in the West as an icon, and his death and burial at sea at the hands of American forces will not undermine that perception in the eyes of his sympathisers. Indeed, Egypt’s former Mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wasil, has already declared Bin Laden a martyr, “because he was killed by the hands of the enemy.” (Sheikh Wasil, it should be made known, has no links or known sympathies for Al Qaeda and he represents a very different Islamic school of thought.)
Aside from the mixed signals online, in the virtual world, the critical question is whether eliminating Bin Laden marks the beginning of Al Qaeda’s demise in reality. Some terrorist organisations have, of course, collapsed following the death of their charismatic leader. The case of Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo (the Japanese group that organized the Sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway in 1995), comes to mind here.
But capturing and trying violent leaders is probably a better marker of the end of such organisations – the chances of such an outcome being higher when such leaders recant their views and call on their followers to lay down their arms. Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Maoist Shining Path in Peru, and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, are notable examples of this.
By contrast, far from causing the demise of an armed movement, the killing of a charismatic leader at the hands of his enemies can transform such a figure into a martyr. Che Guevera was far more valuable to leftist militancy after his death than he was while alive.
Armed Islamism has its particularities, of course, but it also shares important characteristics with some of these groups, including the relationship between the physical elimination of a leader and organisational survival. Decentralised organisations with relevant ideologies, operating in contexts full of conditions conducive to armed action, usually survive leadership losses, whereas hierarchical, cult-like organisations often do not.
Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been far from a hierarchical, cult-like organisation. Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi’s Al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq demonstrates this well: the group was called Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for recruitment and propaganda purposes, but it was quite autonomous organizationally and operationally. When Bin Laden’s close collaborator Ayman al-Zawahiri asked al-Zaraqawi to avoid targeting Shiites, al-Zaraqawi instead escalated the violence against them.
Al Qaeda’s franchise model applies to Algeria, Yemen, North Mali, and Somalia as well. And, like guerrilla movements of yore, Al Qaeda partakes of “ideological front” tactics: small urban cells and/or vulnerable individuals subscribe to the ideology and self-recruit or self-start an affiliated cell.
In all of its decentralised modes of operation, Bin Laden mainly played the role of inspirational guide and iconic figurehead – a role better played when dead by American guns than alive, hiding from them.
Consider Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist intellectual who influenced Bin Laden and others. Qutb was executed by Gamel Abdel Nasser’s dictatorship in Egypt in August 1966, in an attempt to reduce his influence. That tactic backfired badly. Of the 98 fellow Muslim Brotherhood prisoners with whom Qutb discussed his new confrontational ideology in 1964, 35 were strongly supportive, 23 strongly opposed, and 50 hesitant. Despite his intellectual status and prestige, Qutb had failed to persuade the majority of like-minded inmates under conditions of repression.
But, no sooner was Qutb the intellectual executed than Qutb the grand martyr was born. His supporters soon numbered in the thousands, rather than the dozens, and he came to inspire generations, not just individual inmates. Moreover, Qutb was executed by an Arab Nationalist Muslim leader, whereas Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals. That makes a significant difference in the Muslim world.
Imprisonment, followed by recantation of violence, has become almost a trend in several jihadist groups, notably the 20,000-strong Egyptian Islamic Group, factions of the al-Jihad Organisation in Egypt, and smaller groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Leading figures in armed Islamist movements have not only abandoned political violence, but have also de-legitimised it as a means for social and political change after spending periods in prison. For example, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), an Al Qaeda ideologue for a decade, published several books denouncing armed activism, both theologically and on tactical grounds, after spending several years in prison.
The same applies to the Islamic Group, a movement implicated in violent acts in almost a dozen countries throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, including armed insurgency in Egypt, bombings in the United States and Croatia, assassination attempts in Ethiopia, and training camps in Afghanistan. In the 2000’s, the imprisoned leadership of the Group produced more than 25 books aimed at de-legitimising political violence as a method for change.
Eliminating the “spiritual guide” (as opposed to the organizational leaders) of a militant group might be perceived as a political victory for a government in the short term, but it probably makes a comprehensive de-radicalisation process less likely, and it will not necessarily mean the end of the organisation in question. For long-term results, capture is almost always more effective than killing.
Omar Ashour is Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Middle East Studies Programme at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), and the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements