Al-Qaeda is its own worst enemy

Decentralisation of al-Qaeda power structure allowed for global franchising but diluted bin Laden’s authority.

screengrab of pro-Osama bin Laden facebook page
The Facebook page, which has been deleted several times before reappearing online, highlights the nebulous structure of al-Qaeda – a web which not only empowered its localised members to commit acts of violence under the al-Qaeda ‘brand’, but which rendered its leadership largely irrelevant [Picture: Al Jazeera screenshot of]

The Facebook page set up in honour of al-Qaeda’s founder is entitled “We are all Osama bin Laden”. But it is this reality – the fact that anyone anywhere can commit a violent act using the al-Qaeda brand – which has proved most damaging for the organisation.

After 9/11 and the destruction of al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda fractured into a moving target, a global cadre of autonomous cells which enabled it to continue to both elude and fight its enemies. However, with the globalisation of his jihad, bin Laden’s authority was at once far-reaching and fragmented. Ceding command-and-control to self-defined “al-Qaeda” franchises brought enormous setbacks.

Bin Laden portrayed al-Qaeda as a vanguard group with a clear and simple mandate: to defend Muslims. Every one of his statements made clear that his was a defensive jihad to protect the innocent blood of Muslims from a Crusader onslaught. All of his legal, moral and political arguments rested on this premise. Yet the credibility of bin Laden’s claim to be acting in defence of Muslims exploded alongside the scores of suicide bombers dispatched to civilian centres with the direct intention of massacring swathes of (Muslim) civilians.

On the run in Pakistan, bin Laden and his colleagues at “al-Qaeda central” seemed unwilling, but more likely unable, to control their over-zealous offspring. For example, two letters were sent to the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, berating him for his fanaticism, reminding him that scenes of mass slaughter did not help al-Qaeda’s cause – and counselling him that to alienate the population would contravene all of the fundamentals of politics and leadership. But Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s savagery did not stop.

Turning the masses away from the cause

Citing Clausewitz, Mao and Giap, al-Qaeda’s strategic thinkers had always emphasised the importance of attracting the support of the Muslim masses to the global jihad. The people were the sea in which al-Qaeda’s militants were supposed to swim and, without whom, the mujahidin would be “crushed in the shadows”. And so, in a remarkably candid audiotape aired on Al Jazeera in October 2007, bin Laden advised the “brothers in al-Qaeda everywhere” not to succumb to extremism.  Allegiance to the umma – the global community of Muslims – had to be placed above that of tribe and sect.

Bin Laden’s aim was to lead a popular and mainstream resistance movement, yet al-Qaeda’s reckless affiliates and their fanatical footmen consigned the group to the more radical margins of the umma. Their means (massacring Muslims) contradicted bin Laden’s stated end (protecting the umma).

But it was bin Laden himself who had helped make this possible, by contributing spectacularly to the democratisation of Islamic authority. Extending the arguments which had been made decades before by radical ideologues like Sayed Qutb, bin Laden claimed that the region’s rulers and the traditional clergy were too weak and corrupt to protect Muslim blood. Individual Muslims had not only a right but a duty to take matters into their own hands.  Re-inventing the Islamic legal concept of fard ayn (individual duty for jihad), bin Laden eroded the authority of the clergy, without being able to claim a monopoly over it himself.

The future for al-Qaeda

Bin Laden’s departure will only accelerate this democratising process. What little unifying power bin Laden still exerted has now been entirely removed. Indeed, his death deals a heavy blow to the old guard in “al-Qaeda central”, and will probably empower loose affiliates who no longer feel the need to answer to anyone.  

Some groups, such as those in Pakistan, will continue the descent into nihilistic chaos, killing for killing’s sake. Others, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, will remain primarily preoccupied with lashing out at the Algerian state. Still others, namely al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will view this juncture as an opportunity to go back to basics.

Indeed, since its emergence in January 2009, AQAP has endeavoured to re-focus the jihad towards striking the west. Their most high-profile operations have been assaults on the US and British embassies in Sanaa, the bid by the “underpants bomber” to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and the plot to explode cargo planes over western cities. The latest issue of their English-language magazine is dedicated to providing guidance on, and theological justifications for, attacks in the heart of the west.  

Certainly, US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s star is rapidly ascending, precisely because of his fluency in English and his appeal among Muslims outside the region. He also takes bin Laden’s subversion of Islamic authority to its logical extreme: on 8 November 2010 he stated that no fatwa or prior consultation with Islamic experts was necessary to “fight and kill Americans”. If a western target is soon hit in revenge for the slaying of bin Laden, AQAP will be the prime suspect. Next on the list could be the Pakistani Taliban who, since last spring, have vowed to launch their own attacks inside western countries.

Losing the struggle

Though al-Qaeda will be temporarily re-energised by the killing of bin Laden, it will not be enough to build up the sort of momentum and broad-based sympathy that they enjoyed at the height of the US-led occupation of Iraq. Between 2003-2006 in particular, bin Laden’s poetic narrative of resistance resonated even beyond the Muslim world. A German student in my halls at Oxford once returned from a trip home sporting a bin Laden t-shirt. George W Bush’s “war on terror” did not win the struggle for hearts and minds – fortunately, however, al-Qaeda lost it.

Most of the victims of al-Qaeda related violence since 9/11 have been the Muslims of bin Laden’s cherished umma. At the same time, the global jihad has been left twisting in the breeze of the Arab spring. An alternative, secular and pro-democracy discourse has emerged as a genuinely popular regional movement which is, crucially, bringing fast results – two tyrants and counting. At a time when millions of Arabs have taken to the streets to cry for freedom, development and the rule of law, al-Qaeda’s worldview has never been more marginal, or marginalised. Before he died, the umma had stolen bin Laden’s thunder.

The covert operation to kill bin Laden confirmed two important points made by critics of Bush’s war on terror. Firstly, it did not involve all-out-warfare against “enemy” nations. Instead, the surgical, intelligence-led operation was carefully conducted by special forces within a US-allied country. Secondly, the fact that bin Laden was hiding in a an affluent garrison town near Islamabad, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s prestigious military academy, supports the long-held suspicion that elements within Pakistan’s security establishment have been playing a double-game in the war on terror. These Islamic militants have been useful pawns in Pakistan’s conflict with India, particularly over Kashmir, and they provide potential for strategic depth in Afghanistan. 

As for al-Qaeda, it can survive bin Laden’s demise because it was designed to do so. Strategically, bin Laden’s death was always assumed. The evolution, or devolution, into a diffuse network of affiliate groups guaranteed durability and provided significant tactical agility – but it has been catastrophic for the Muslims bin Laden needed to attract to his cause.

It is unlikely that the re-imagining of bin Laden in the wake of his death can re-invent al-Qaeda’s track record of shameful and ultimately pointless bloodshed.  

Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford.

Her work examines the moral justifications given for warfare, as well as jihadi ideology and strategy. Her latest book is Jihad and Just War in the War on Terror.

You can follow her on Twitter: @aliabrahimi

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