Al-Qaeda After Bin-Laden: Can the ‘Brand’ Survive?

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While most of the U.S. media this week rolled out “box set”-type compilations of the best of ten years of reporting on Osama bin-Laden, the magazine most al-Qaeda watches are waiting for is the next edition of Inspire. Dubbed by the LA Times as the “Vanity Fair of jihadi publications,” the next edition of the glossy produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could hold important clues as to who will succeed bin-Laden at the head of the increasingly diffuse global jihad movement.

Then again, it could be quite some time before the magazine next hits the news stands, given the tumult within the movement that’s likely to follow bin-Laden’s death — the fact of which was acknowledged Friday by al-Qaeda statements released on jihadi web sites. Things had not exactly been going swimmingly before the raid on Abottabad; now many of the core leaders will be forced to burrow even deeper into hiding and to limit movement and communication until their own intel operatives can assess the extent of the security breach that allowed the U.S. to find Bin Laden – and assess further intelligence gains the raid would have produced for al-Qaeda’s enemies.

PICTURES: Inside bin Laden’s Lair

Even though the movement will likely survive in its present, disparate form – in most cases largely at the margins of the Muslim societies it had hoped to lead  – imagining al-Qaeda without bin-Laden is a little like contemplating the Fourth International without Trotsky. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Fourth International? Well, exactly.

Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who insisted on an ideologically pure “world revolution” in contrast to the more national-interests based regime created by Stalin in the Soviet Union was forced into exile, where  he founded the Fourth International to lead the “world revolution”. From Mexico City, he frenetically fired off communiqués on the political dramas unfolding in Europe in the 1930s, offering guidelines largely ignored in the mainstream and never attaining the means to shape the events on which he pronounced.

Before bin-Laden’s death, al-Qaeda had found itself similarly marginalized, even as the Arab world entered a period of unprecedented revolutionary ferment.  Al-Qaeda had insisted on its own version of “world revolution” – a global jihad against the “far enemy” (the U.S.), into which it hoped to draw local Islamist insurgencies. But ten years after 9/11, it’s the locally-focused Islamist groups that predominate. Bin Laden’s problem, always, was that even if he had a few hundred men under arms, he represented nothing substantial in the field of politics – unlike the more nationalist rivals frequently denounced by al-Qaeda, such as Hamas and Hizballah which combine violence with politics and welfare work, or like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that eschewed violence altogether. (More on See photos of the U.S. Navy Seals in action)

Even in the countries shaken by revolutionary upheaval, al-Qaeda supporters have been largely eclipsed by more mainstream Islamist movements waging a democratic struggle. And while Yemen-based U.S.-born al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki gamely argues in the Spring edition of Inspire magazine that far from a setback, the Arab rebellion has helped al-Qaeda by ousting some of its bitterest enemies and winning it space to consolidate and grow, that may be wishful thinking – the jihadists will inevitably clash with more popular Islamist movements looking to build a new political order, in the way that al-Qaeda linked groups are fighting an increasingly bitter war against Hamas in Gaza (a statement praising bin Laden by the Hamas leader in Gaza notwithstanding).

Moreover, the democratic space is opened up by the fall of dictators weakens al-Qaeda’s long-term ability to recruit by giving the disaffected young men it would target  a wider range of less violent options for expressing their frustration.

Even if Al-Qaeda has hit a ceiling in terms of its growth and influence, it is far from finished, having morphed into a series of regional bodies whose jihads are decidedly local. Some transnational operations are still attempted, mercifully with little skill, by local affiliates in Yemen and Pakistan, but for the most part, Qaeda militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the maghreb are increasingly fighting local battles rather than trying to strike Bin Laden’s  “far enemy”.

So, whomever is tapped to succeed bin-Laden is inheriting a global brand that may no longer be much more than the sum of its small regional parts. It is widely assumed that bin-Laden’s immediate successor will be his long-time number 2, the movement’s chief ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, also believed to be hiding in Pakistan. Zawahiri was present at the formation of al-Qaeda, and was arguably its moving spirit, having been canny enough to put his own Egyptian Islamic Jihad comrades around bin-Laden in Afghanistan, and eliminate rival influences on the the relatively inexperienced Saudi aristocrat, helping forge and direct a movement that Bin Laden, with his natural charisma and his ability to attract funding, was perfectly positioned to lead. (More on See photos of President Obama’s visit to Ground Zero)

The Wall Street Journal reports that Pakistani intelligence believes that the more militant Zawahiri had already parted ways from Bin Laden some years ago, but this can’t be verified. It’s quite conceivable that Zawahiri – a cantankerous sort prone reportedly not widely loved and prone to dogmatism and factionalism – would be sufficiently aware of his own limitations to put himself in the market for a more charismatic figure to lead al-Qaeda. One candidate might be Yemen-based Awlaki. The charismatic U.S. born cleric has a  gift for communication, particularly with young Muslim men in the West via the Internet, has influenced a number of homegrown attacks in the U.S. (Awlaki wouldn’t even have to  worry that taking the role would make him a target for assassination by the U.S. — because President Obama already ordered his execution last year.)

But Awlaki, raised in the West, may not have the battle scars of Zawahiri himself and other contenders, and he may simply be used as a charismatic communicator. There could be other contenders for leadership who might challenge Zawahiri for the role, such as the Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi or Ilyas Kashmiri, who as his nomme de guerre suggests hails from Kashmir and is said to have fought in Pakistan’s special forces there before crossing over to the jihadist camp.

Less important than the leadership issue will be the movement’s attempts to restore its “brand” by launching new attacks. But these days, a bomb blast in a police recruiting center in Iraq or in a cafe in Morocco, even if executed by a local cell loyal to the al-Qaeda idea, no longer evokes the spectacle of a single terrorist leadership with global reach orchestrating a multi-front war against the “far enemy.” The loss of the brand’s icon further weakens its power, and no successor could hope to come close to emulating bin-Laden’s mythical power — perhaps, in part, because of the extent to which that power was mythologized by the “war on terror” of which he was the enemy’s face.

The Fourth International was marginal even before Trotsky was killed by Stalin; after his death it scarcely garnered any attention at all, and was riddled with the sorts of doctrinal splits that the Monty Python team loved to parody. Unlike the harmless if fervent Fourth International, of course, Al-Qaeda is a vicious gang of thugs that has killed thousands of people. But even if its supporters manage occasionally to add to its body count, history has condemned it to go the way of the Fourth International. (More on Photos: Gawking at Osama bin Laden’s Compound)