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Osama the Symbol Not So Easy to Vanquish

WASHINGTON, May 3 2011 (IPS) - Far from concluding the war on terror, both Western and Muslim-majority countries – many emerging or still embroiled in months of popular protests – will continue to face a threat from extremist ideology after the United States’ decade-long campaign to capture or kill Osama bin Laden has come to an end, most analysts say.

The U.S. will now position its tactical focus and key intelligence assets to defeat those members of al Qaida’s (AQ) network of global affiliates who remain elusive.

The hunt for bin Laden was costly, resulting in wars both in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming the lives of over 100,000 civilians and 5,000 U.S. military personnel, and draining 1.3 trillion dollars from state funds since Sep. 11, 2001.

However, as President Barack Obama made clear in his speech on Sunday night, bin Laden’s death, while an important moment for U.S. morale, does not herald the end of the U.S. campaign against extremist ideology nor does it greatly reduce the potential for more terrorist attacks, according to analysts.

“He’s been a source of ideology and a symbol and those are roles that can be played by a dead man, as well as a live one… These [attacks] will happen regardless of bin Laden,” former CIA analyst Dr. Paul R. Pillar told IPS.

A movement in decline

In the broader historical context however, AQ's narrative of violent extremism is in a state of decline and has lost a significant number of its direct supporters and sympathisers, according to some regional experts.

"The Sunni movement is not specifically linked to al- Qaeda as an organization, but it's much more of a historical revival of Sunni Islam. It will run its course like a fever," former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency official Lt. Gen. Patrick Lang told IPS.

"Revivalism crops up every 100 to 150 years and sets out to conquer the human spirit for Islam and takes a lot of casualties in the process and then kind of dies down…It's a kind of cyclic phenomenon and Islamic terrorism will die out after a while," Lang added.

Earlier examples of alternative or revivalist Islamic movements - those that offered a fundamentalist alternative to the mainstream Sunni interpretations of sacred texts and Islamic law - were significant because of their eventual irrelevance to the contemporaneous understandings of Islam as practiced in the day to day lives of the majority of Muslims, and marked the continuation of a boom and bust pattern in general religiosity.

Dating back to the 11th century, the Almoravid dynasty in the Maghreb, or the teachings of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah, Ahmad Sirhindi's Naqshabandi order in South Asia - which focused on mystical interpretations of Islam rather violent religious conservatism - were all pertinent examples of reactionary strains in this cyclical trend of pre- modern Islamic tradition.

But it was not until the encroachment of Western imperialism that reactionary groups began incorporating violent messages into their ideologies - Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qtub emphasised an exclusionary and coercive fundamentalism in much of their most influential writing.

A decentralised network

Since news of the death of al Qaeda’s figurehead broke over Washington Sunday night, there has been almost universal consensus that it will do little to strange the group’s operational capacity, given its decentralised leadership and diffuse bases of operation.

The most recent attempts on U.S. targets – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s “underwear” bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial airliner and Faisal Shazad’s car packed with faulty explosives in New York’s Times Square – were attributed to the Yemeni-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and are highly indicative of this trend.

“External operations (AQ’s attacks against the West) are not likely to be impacted. [Bin Laden] really only got involved in ops planning to approve spectaculars, particularly those using a new means of attack or against a new target,” Leah Farrall, a former senior counterterrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police, wrote on her blog, “All Things Counter Terrorism.”

“Second-tier leaders deal with external operations for the most part. Aside from communications disruptions (which do little to disrupt those already deployed) this section will continue on business as usual,” Farrall added.

While bin Laden’s death marks a significant loss for the organisation’s strategic guidance, its ability to coalesce and focus the energies of disparate extremist groups into terrorising on both a local and global scale, and in promoting its grotesque model of inspirational authority, according to some analysts, AQ’s organisational leadership is structured to allow others such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s putative but far less capable heir-apparent, or Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s chief of operations to continue attacks, albeit with less cohesiveness.

As recently as Apr. 30, in a bombing thought to have been perpetrated by AQIM, 16 Western tourists were killed in Morocco.

Along with other organisations that espoused violence as a means to create an Islamic utopia, using as religious justification various fundamentalist interpretations such as al-Wahhab and Egyptian born- Sayyid Qtub’s, AQ succeeded in exploiting particular world events beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s to elicit a violent response from a few hundred like-minded individuals – burdening, in the process, an overwhelming majority of Muslims who did not have, nor wanted to have any association with bin Laden’s violent variant of anti-imperialism.

Despite bin Laden’s questionable religious authority, he was extremely adept at melding political sentiments that stood up against the historical and modern legacies of Western imperialism, the Middle Eastern autocrats of pan-Arab nationalism – as well as Arab monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s birthplace – with messages of social justice for all Muslims and a incitement of jihad against Western targets throughout the world.

Since the U.S.’s failed attempts to kill bin Laden under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations – the 1998 missile attack on a compound near Khost, Afghanistan and the 2001 firefight in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region – the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command as well as other intelligence agencies have, in a frustrating, at points disappointing campaign, targeted AQ’s leadership with tenacious zeal.

President Obama stated in his announcement on Monday night that bin Laden’s death “should be welcomed by all who believe in human peace and dignity.” But his movement is far from being defeated wholesale.

The pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East have reiterated what has long been a formal rejection of the extremist narrative in the mainstream public opinion of Muslim-majority countries, and they indicate a further shift away from the latest version of fundamentalist revivalism – religious identity was but a peripheral component that motivated the forces for change in both Egypt and Tunisia.

“[E]ven before bin Laden’s death, analysts had begun to argue that al-Qaida was rapidly becoming irrelevant,” Richard A. Clarke, former counterterrorism coordinator at the National Security Council wrote in a New York Times op- ed on Tuesday.

“But such rejoicing would be premature. To many Islamist ideologues, the Arab Spring simply represents the removal of obstacles that stood in the way of establishing the caliphate. Their goal has not changed, nor has their willingness to use terrorism,” Clarke added.

Regardless of any continued threat AQ and its affiliates may pose, most would agree that Osama’s death will encourage the West, if only symbolically, to move away from its preoccupation with radical Islam and focus on the real concerns and aspirations in those countries where its existence has had the most devastating impact.

“It is time to declare extreme Islamism a failed ideology, renounce the culture of fear, and get on with the new world of Middle East politics,” Dr. Gary Sick, a regional expert wrote in his blog “Gary’s Choices” on Tuesday.

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