Bin Laden’s death and the implications for jihadism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The death of Osama Bin Laden represents a significant victory for the United States and its European allies. However, it will have little effect on Al-Qaida's "leaderless" model for terrorism, nor does it resolve the continuing serious difficulties in Pakistan, argues security analyst Scott Stewart.

Scott Stewart is a senior security analyst with STRATFOR.

"US President Barack Obama appeared in a hastily arranged televised address the night of 1 May 2011 to inform the world that US counter-terrorism forces had located and killed Osama Bin Laden. The operation, which reportedly happened in the early hours of 2 May local time, targeted a compound in Abbottabad, a city located some 31 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The nighttime raid resulted in a brief firefight that left Bin Laden and several others dead. A US helicopter reportedly was damaged in the raid and later destroyed by US forces. Obama reported that no US personnel were lost in the operation. After a brief search of the compound, the US forces left with Bin Laden's body and presumably anything else that appeared to have intelligence value. From Obama's carefully scripted speech, it would appear that the US conducted the operation unilaterally with no Pakistani assistance — or even knowledge.

As evidenced by the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in Washington, New York and across the United States, the killing of Bin Laden has struck a chord with many Americans.

This was true not only of those who lost family members as a result of the attack, but of those who were vicariously terrorised and still vividly recall the deep sense of fear they felt the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as they watched aircraft strike the World Trade Centre Towers and saw those towers collapse on live television, and then heard reports of the Pentagon being struck by a third aircraft and of a fourth aircraft prevented from being used in another attack when it crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

As that fear turned to anger, a deep-seated thirst for vengeance led the United States to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 and to declare a 'global war on terrorism'.

Because of this sense of fulfilled vengeance, the death of Bin Laden will certainly be one of those events that people will remember, like the 9/11 attacks themselves. In spite of the sense of justice and closure the killing of Bin Laden brings, however, his death will likely have very little practical impact on the jihadist movement. More important will be the reaction of the Pakistani government to the operation and the impact it has on US-Pakistani relations.


To understand the impact of Bin Laden's death on the global jihadist movement, we must first remember that the phenomenon of jihadism is far wider than just the Al-Qaeda core leadership of Bin Laden and his closest followers. Rather than a monolithic entity based on the Al-Qaeda group, jihadism has devolved into a far more diffuse network composed of many different parts.

These parts include the core Al-Qaeda group formerly headed by Bin Laden; a network of various regional franchise groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and last, a broad array of grassroots operatives who are adherents to the jihadist ideology but who are not formally affiliated with the Al-Qaeda core or one of the regional franchises.

The Al-Qaeda core always has been a fairly small and elite vanguard. Since 9/11, intense pressure has been placed upon this core organisation by the US government and its allies. This pressure has resulted in the death or capture of many Al-Qaeda cadres and has served to keep the group small due to overriding operational security concerns.

This insular group has laid low in Pakistan, and this isolation has significantly degraded its ability to conduct attacks. All of this has caused the Al-Qaeda core to become primarily an organisation that produces propaganda and provides guidance and inspiration to the other jihadist elements rather than an organisation focused on conducting operations. While Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda core have received a great deal of media attention, the core group comprises only a very small portion of the larger jihadist movement.

As STRATFOR has analysed the war between the jihadist movement and the rest of the world, we have come to view the battlefield as being divided into two distinct parts, the physical battlefield and the ideological battlefield. The post-9/11 assault on the Al-Qaeda core group hindered its ability to act upon the physical battlefield. For the past several years, they have been limited to fighting on the ideological battlefield, waging a war of propaganda and attempting to promote the ideology of jihadism in an effort to radicalise Muslims and prompt them to act.

The danger has always existed that if pressure were taken off this core, it could regroup and return to the physical struggle. But the pressure has been relentless and the group has been unable to return to its pre-9/11 level of operational capability. This has resulted in the grassroots and franchise groups like AQAP taking the lead on the physical battlefield.

As we noted in our annual forecast of the jihadist movement, the Al-Qaeda core group has not only been eclipsed on the physical battlefield, over the past few years it has been overshadowed on the ideological battlefield as well.

Groups such as AQAP have begun setting the tone on the ideological realm — as in its call for Muslims to assume the leaderless resistance model rather than traveling to join groups — and we have seen the al Qaeda core follow the lead of AQAP rather than set the tone themselves.

We believe this deference to AQAP is a sign of Al-Qaeda core's weakness, and of its struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. There also have been many disagreements among various actors in the jihadist movement over doctrinal issues such as targeting foreigners over local security forces and attacks that kill Muslims.

To read the analysis in full, please click here.

(Published in partnership with Stratfor.)

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