Five years on: The world without Bin Laden

The trail of Bin Laden’s legacy has been long and overwhelming.

Osama Bin Laden
Five years on after his death, is the world safer? [The Associated Press]

In an audio speech, purportedly recorded shortly before his death five years ago, Osama bin Laden hailed the Arab Spring revolutions that were still shaking off the Middle East and succeeded in toppling four entrenched Arab dictatorships. 

In his posthumous address, widely seen at the time as a new political manifesto, al-Qaeda leader urged his Arab disciples to capitalise on the popular uprisings as a catalyst to throw off the yoke of their “unjust and despotic” governments. 

“It is a great sin and a gross [act of] ignorance to let this opportunity which the nation [Muslims] has been (a)waiting for decades to slip away. Take it and destroy the idols and statues and install justice and faith,” bin Laden appealed to his followers. 

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Bin Laden did not live long enough to make the world witness how a fugitive leader who was seeking to conquer “infidel” superpowers and their local “cronies” could have turned the Arab revolutions to a sweeter moment for his world’s jihadism.

Ostensibly, from beyond the grave, bin Laden’s role as an inspirational force is far more important for ideological adherents of jihad than any operational command he might have offered.

Yet, conventional wisdom holds that the rise of radical groups was surprisingly one of the unintended consequences of the abysmal failure of the Arab uprisings and the US-orchestrated regime change in Iraq.

Today, with the democratic setbacks of the post-Arab Spring, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, which was spawned by al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s franchises across the Middle East and adjacent areas are working full time advancing bin Laden’s agenda.

This has always begged the question whether the descent into chaos of religious radicalism was bin Laden’s prophecy and ambition or it was part of his legacy.

Shortly after bin Laden’s killing on May 1, 2011, in a daring raid by US forces in Pakistan, a statement issued by al-Qaeda vowed that “the soldiers of Islam” would continue his path “tirelessly and without desperation … Sheikh Osama did not build an organisation that will die with his death and leave with his departure”, the group boasted.

Even US President Barack Obama acknowledged that the military operation that put an end to bin Laden’s life would not put an end to the war against al-Qaeda.

“There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must – and we will – remain vigilant at home and abroad,” said Obama in his famous “we got him” speech.

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Beyond rhetoric, however, bin Laden’s killing has led to a range of speculations about the future of radical groups and the short and long-term security and foreign policy implications for the world at large.

While the Obama administration trumpeted the killing of “the man who declared war on America” as a victory and a turning point in “the war against terrorism”, many experts had viewed bin Laden’s death to be a largely symbolic triumph. By the time bin Laden was dead, they argued, a drastic shift had occurred away from the core of al-Qaeda’s leadership to subsidiaries and like-minded groups.

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Many analysts believed that long before Bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda mutated into a franchise operation, relying on local jihadist zeal and initiatives rather than a central command.

From Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen to France, Somalia, sub-Saharan Africa, Belgium and Turkey, among other places, the trail of bin Laden’s legacy has been long and overwhelming.

Contrary to what Western officials have predicted, the successful US military operation against bin Laden did not serve as a powerful deterrent to either current or aspiring radical groups.

Those self-proclaimed jihadists have found themselves haunted by the historic realities of the gap between the West and the Muslim world that bin Laden and al-Qaeda have exploited and put on the international agenda.

Foreign interventions, Islamophobia, support for Western-backed Arab despots, democracy’s deficiencies, freedom and human rights abuses, corruption and poverty: these are facts that cannot be brushed aside if one wants to seriously deal with bin Laden’s legacy.

Bin Laden’s killing operation was perhaps a glaring advertisement for the greatest military on earth, but while he is gone the world still lives under his shadow and the radical movement he spearheaded.

The debate today looks beyond whether the world is safer or more dangerous after his death to his example of jihad that is used as the ultimate talking point to discuss Islam.

Ostensibly, from beyond the grave, bin Laden’s role as an inspirational force is far more important for ideological adherents of jihad than any operational command he might have offered.

Even more so is the fact that the remaining bin Ladenists are still hoping to revive al-Qaeda as a global jihad forum once ISIL is gone.

Source: Al Jazeera