The bin-Laden legacy.

Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.

Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.

With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.

Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.

Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.

In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.

The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.

That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.

However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.

In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.

The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.

Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.

The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.


7 thoughts on “The bin-Laden legacy.

  1. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have actually been 100% effective in what was originally one of their most pressing goals – the removal of non-Muslim military forces from Saudi Arabia. This even seems to have happened largely as a result of the 9/11 attacks. I think this can’t be ignored when toting up the Bin Laden balance sheet, although it’s obviously more complicated than just that.

    I suppose one could argue they weren’t 100% effective in that the door is potentially open for those forces to return if the Saudi government asks for them, but even so…

  2. Hah, I get to pull a Hugh on Hugh! The CIA has a not so secret drone base in Saudi that it uses to strike at targets in the Magreb and Horn. So Osama may have had something to do with removing uniformed US military personnel from air force bases, but he did F*** all to stop a more surreptitious presence.

    The larger point of rolling back the US Middle Eastern presence is fairly taken, as is the notion that the US is weaker today than it was on Sept 10, 2001.

  3. Yeah, and there’s still a military training mission in Saudi. But it’s a massive drawdown from the situation pre 9/11, when there were many thousands of US troops in Saudi.

    Then again, having read a few more Al Qaeda propaganda statements and demands, it’s not entirely clear whether they wanted US troops out of the Middle East generally, or Saudi Arabia specifically. If it’s the former, they obviously haven’t been successful.

  4. I have to agree overall with the conclusion.

    I cant help but wonder at the US over Boston. In the US – according to Wiki – they kill over 30,000 on the roads each year – thats over 90 per day. Leaving all the emotion aside – then if the US spent the same amount of money on roads and cars as they have on wars – they would save a lot of people.
    3 people killed and about 120 injured in Boston is a drop in the ocean compared to the road toll. If the Boston reaction was right (of course it wasnt – it was crazy…) then they should ban cars……..

    Bin Laden et al have certainly got the US (especially) running around like a headless chicken. Homeland security is just one aspect. Take international airfreight. They banned direct airfreight into the US. They insisted that it go via another airport – so that if there was a pressure activated bomb that it would explode over some other country. The cost involved in all these crazy schemes will certainly send someone bankrupt.

    And the reluctance – mainly in the US – to publically do profiling is stupid. Political correctness has even overtaken security.

    All these unhappy terrorist (mostly muslims) need to do is organise a Boston type thing every 5 or so years and the US will send it self nuts.

    Only a few years ago i was training from germany to Switzerland. Passed the border with no checks. About 3 or 4 stations into Switzerland the customs came thru to check passports. I commented that I could have got off by now and no one would know i was there. The customs guy advised me that it wouldnt matter – “we know who we are interested in” – and he went onto say that if they did no checks then the media would be saying that theyre not interested in security – but he reassured me that “we know who we should be checking”. In other words they use profiling and all sorts of other information to keep tabs. And europe isnt all tied up in costly security and infringement of various freedoms.

  5. “The cost involved in all these crazy schemes will certainly send someone bankrupt….”

    Ah, but they will also make someone else millions.

  6. @Pablo: By the way, in terms of the wider issue of victory metrics, have you read/skimmed/become aware of Johnson & Tierney’s ‘Failing to Win’?

  7. “Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions”
    Black Panther

    Or not very dormant.
    Once again your politics colours good analysis. I guess you are effectively arguing that the election of America’s first black (& socialist) president is a strategic result of 911 and the US military industrial complex over reaction.

    US technology has been used to f&^k up AQ real good. The use of drones and technology is increasingly going to replace boots on the ground.

    Coalition forces have withdrawn from Iraq. The Kurdish area is peaceful and the sectarian tension suppressed by Hussein has resurfaced. Homogenous areas have low levels of conflict. Mixed areas have high levels.
    The coalition is withdrawing from Afghanistan and will use drones to keep the weeds down.

    Living in the UK near a large Muslim immigrant area has given me a slightly different perspective.

    The ongoing attacks are disaffected youth with access to conspiracy theory and instructions from the internet. The various “bombers” they are catching now seem like clowns in comparison to the 911 conspirators. They do not constitute any kind of serious let alone existential political force.
    The boston bombers used gun powder from fireworks in what seemed to be a makeshift claymore mine. What surprised me is that they only killed 3 with 2 claymore. That seems very amateurish to me. There are serious bomb makers in Afghanistan. They got their first kill of troops in a Mastiff APC in the last few days.

    My point is that the jihadists are not conducting any kind of effective insurgency away from their home areas. They have been suppressed.

    Syria is going to finish its revolution soon and people will get some kind of self determination. One interesting result of that will be the implosion of local popular support for Hizbollah after they decided to support the regime and maintain their supply lines from Iran.

    Yes the world is a changed place but the Islamists lost. Bin Laden made a massive strategic error with 911. Beirut 1982, Somalia, WTC 93 gave AQ a flase impression of how far they could push America. Market democracy continues its slow but steady march across the world. Sooner or later Islam will have its reformation. Perhaps AQ and Bin Laden have speeded that process up but they have not changed the course of history, just demonstrated to the world how barbaric Islam can be.

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