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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Osama's death 'a good career move'?
Al-Qaeda's leader might appear to have died with a bang, but he had long since died with a whimper.
Last Modified: 02 May 2011 08:12
In the 'Muslim world' as opposed to the West, the enigmatic Saudi's passing represents something quite different [AFP]

For Osama bin Laden, violent death must have come as a blessing. It has given him, at least fleetingly, a seeming prominence that in fact had long since ebbed away, not only in the Muslim world, but even within al-Qaeda itself.

To many in the US, for whom bin Laden's demise is indeed an important event, president Barack Obama's announcement represents long-delayed justice for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the fulfillment of a long-standing promise from two quite different US presidents. But in the Muslim world, where bin Laden and the movement he spawned produced the vast majority of their victims, the enigmatic Saudi's passing represents something quite different.

One supposes that for bin Laden, if he had any clear conception of his place in the world nearly 10 years after the attack which brought him to global prominence, life must have become unbearable. For the violent extremists whom bin Laden has sponsored and encouraged, it is a mark of pride that they seek death for what they believe. And even for those among them who hide in the shadows, it is with the conviction that they live today to strike at their enemies tomorrow. 

But for bin Laden, who might well have met martyrdom with many of his followers at Tora Bora, such was his megalomaniacal conception of his importance that he believed his greatest contribution to the movement would be to ensure his own survival, even as those around him were martyred for the cause.

Consider, then, what it must have been like for such an ego to fade into functional obscurity. As he was reduced to issuing occasional audio tapes of increasing irrelevance, even the core of the organisation he founded learned to live without him. And the scattered little groups around the globe which had appropriated the al-Qaeda name in fact had little connection to bin Laden's organisation, and still less to bin Laden himself.

'Good career move'

Indeed, what must have been most crushing for bin Laden was the rise of the so-called Arab Spring. The very people in the Arab world whose concerns bin Laden claimed most importantly to represent have revealed the utter fallacy at the heart of Sheikh Osama's message. 

The al-Qaeda leader had long professed that the only means of liberation for the Muslims was to strike at the Western powers who propped up their repressive leaders, and thereby to undo the vast US-led conspiracy to subjugate them. What the Arab youth have shown is that the means of their liberation is in their own hands, and has always been. Indeed, they have shown that in the face of their moral example, the Western world, more often than not, will be forced to support them.

Even more importantly, the world which those responsible for the uprisings throughout the Arab world are trying to construct for themselves looks nothing like the dark, obscurantist vision of bin Laden and his core followers. Even the most radically anti-western of the genuine religious leaders in the Muslim world have long since soundly rejected the Takfiri doctrines perpetrated by al-Qaeda. 

What remains of bin Laden's movement, while it may still represent a lethal threat on a tactical scale, has been clearly bypassed and marginalised by the historical evolution of those whom it would pretend to represent and to lead. 

That is as true in South Asia, where local opposition to western involvement in Afghanistan has given al-Qaeda a seeming prominence which in fact it does not merit, as it is elsewhere in the Muslim world.

It may seem an odd analogy, but I am put in mind of a former Hollywood celebrity who had long since been personally repudiated by the public, whose death a number of years ago was described unkindly by one wag as a "good career move". 

The same might easily be said of Osama bin Laden. He might appear to have died with a bang. But he had long since died with a whimper. 
 
Robert Grenier retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Earlier, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA's Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is Chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm - and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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