LONDON: In a dramatic late-night broadcast on May 2, 2011, Barack Obama, then US president, announced the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The US military and CIA operatives had located and killed the Al-Qaeda leader in a nighttime raid on a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, where he had been hiding.
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief on hearing the announcement. It had taken the Americans nearly 3,519 days to hunt down the mastermind of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the US. That fateful day, Al-Qaeda members hijacked four passenger planes in a coordinated terrorist operation that killed nearly 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others, and caused at least $10bn in infrastructure and property damage.
It was obvious that with the killing of Bin Laden, the US had succeeded in cutting off the head of the snake. But what about the rest of the body? The picture is a lot clearer with the benefit of hindsight.
After Bin Laden’s death, his son Hamza served as the unofficial heir apparent, preparing to take up the mantle as the chief of Al-Qaeda when the time was ripe, while Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a close associate of Bin Laden, was in charge of the day-to-day running of the organization.
However, speculation about a more enduring Al-Zawahiri leadership of Al-Qaeda was fueled anew by an announcement by the US on July 31 this year that Hamza bin Laden died in an airstrike “some time in 2017.”
With the apparent removal of Hamza bin Laden from the succession race, Al-Qaeda has been deprived of a chance to rally its sympathizers and supporters around a leader who had an impeccable connection to its founder, and at a time both Al-Qaeda and terrorism are in disfavor in much of the world.
As far back as 2011, “an unnamed senior US official” was quoted in a BBC report as saying that “Al-Zawahiri’s ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissension with Al-Qaeda,” because he “has nowhere near the credentials that [Osama bin Laden] had.”
Reacting to what has been a common perception, Arie Kruglanski, distinguished university professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and an expert on the psychology of terrorism and political activism, says it is correct but up to a point.
Kruglanski does not think the 68-year-old Al-Zawahiri’s leadership is bound to diminish the potency of Al-Qaeda.
“Although Ayman Al-Zawahiri lacks the charisma of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda continues to inspire and instigate threat entities worldwide,” he told Arab News. “Al-Qaeda under Ayman Al-Zawahiri presents a continuing challenge to governments worldwide.”
Since the establishment of Al-Qaeda on August 20, 1988, until his death 23 years later, Osama bin Laden had been much more than just the terrorist group’s commander and leader; he was an inspiration for violent extremist groups across the Islamic world and beyond.
While he was alive, the story of Bin Laden’s life, notably his transformation from a billionaire construction magnate’s son into a militant commander of the Afghan jihad, and the establishment of Al-Qaeda branches worldwide, strongly resonated with aspiring extremists. Soon after the announcement of his death in 2011, an article in the journal of the American Psychological Association suggested that the news would have a negative effect on Al-Qaeda on both operational and inspirational levels.
“Bin Laden was a very special figure,” Kruglanski was quoted as saying in the article, entitled “Bin Laden’s death: What does it mean?”
“He proved himself in battle, he sacrificed his material interests for the cause, and he was able to organize spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies.”
By all accounts, in the absence of a leader of Bin Laden’s standing, extremist Islamic ideologues and activists have struggled to find a suitable replacement.
The self-proclaimed leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had raised expectations with his appearance and declaration of a “caliphate” during a Friday prayer in July 2014 at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
However, it is widely believed he has failed to fill the shoes of Bin Laden from the standpoint of violent extremists. Since that maiden appearance, the only other time the world got to see him was in a Daesh propaganda video released after the Easter Sunday Sri Lanka attacks, which killed 257 people, including 45 foreign nationals.
This was in marked contrast to Osama bin Laden’s 31 appearances via satellite TV and video clips, in which he addressed his supporters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Those speeches played an important role in mobilizing and motivating his supporters right up until his death.
With violent extremist groups hamstrung by an absence of charismatic leadership, the global terrorism landscape has undergone a steady transformation. Some of the offshoots of transnational terrorist organizations have effectively become agents of regimes that provide funding and material support in exchange for control over their actions.
The trend of sovereign states gaining influence over offshoots of terrorist groups is evident in at least two war-torn Arab countries. In Libya, Turkey and Qatar are backing militant groups, exercising influence over their decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, in Syria, a number of militant groups are acting as proxies of Turkey in such regions as Afrin and Idlib, where the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deployed forces.
Big payments by Qatar for the release of Qatari nationals held hostage by Shia militia in southern Iraq are believed to have bankrolled the Nusra Front (or Jabhat Al-Nusra), an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group that rapidly grew to become Syria’s most powerful extremist faction.
Until 2016, the Nusra Front publicly maintained its ties to Al-Qaeda, even after the latter’s open split with Daesh, whose leader Al-Baghdadi had been instrumental in the Nusra Front’s formation. The Front’s latest iteration is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).
“The core of Al-Qaeda is weak but its peripheral groups are stronger,” Kruglanski said.
Currently, Al-Qaeda’s operational reach stretches far and wide. Its affiliated extremist groups include Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Northeast Asia, Jemmah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and Al-Shabab in Africa.
Overall, says Kruglanski, “the strongest component of Al-Qaeda is HTS, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and Syria.”
Whatever the real state of Al-Qaeda, this much can be said for sure: the narrative of violent extremism since the attacks of 2001 has been anything but linear.
The strategy popularized by Al-Qaeda to target the distant enemy has receded. The objective of violent extremists at present is to attack the near enemy (represented by national regimes) and to be active in conflict zones to take advantage of local conditions in failed or failing states such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
“The strategy of all armed groups depends on leadership that provides the direction. After 9/11, Al-Qaeda was forced to shift its focus away from striking the distant enemy,” Kruglanski told Arab News. “Al-Qaeda, whose strength is the periphery and not the center, is focusing on the near enemy.”
During this period, the West has witnessed the rise of the far right and Islamophobia while the Arab world has been shaken by uprisings and civil wars. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and Daesh as well, have taken advantage of these developments to attract sympathizers, eliminate moderate political forces and sow chaos and discord.
As Rahimullah Yusufzai, the senior Pakistani journalist and security analyst who interviewed Bin Laden, points out, “9/11 was the first and last major terrorist attack against the US, which took unprecedented steps to thwart further attacks. Afghanistan continues to suffer from unending violence even though none of the 9/11 attackers were Afghan.”
Experts say that the passage of time and senseless bloodshed may have dimmed the appeal of Al-Qaeda and Daesh, but governments worldwide can scarcely afford to drop their guard.
“To fight the threat, there needs to be a shift from a whole-nation to a whole-world approach,” Kruglanski told Arab News.
“Government should work with partners in the media, religious institutions, the education establishment and other sectors to unite communities to stand against both Daesh and Al-Qaeda-centric groups.”
“As long as the ideology keeps renewing itself to stay relevant, the threat remains undiminished.”