Nearing the second anniversary of OsamaÂ bin-Laden’sÂ 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 orÂ prejorativeÂ discourse.
Bin-Laden’sÂ 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,Â bin-Laden’sÂ broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler MichaelÂ ScheuerÂ 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 violationÂ 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.