Was killing of al-Qa'ida figurehead useful at all?

The benefits of assassinating Osama bin Laden one year ago are not too easy to quantify, says Patrick Cockburn

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A year after Osama bin Laden was killed, how relevant is al-Qa'ida? In the decade since 9/11, Bin Laden was always a symbol more than an operational commander. His death did not do much to disrupt the group. Occasional recordings of his voice that surfaced over the years contained no new ideas and were primarily a way for al-Qa'ida to show that he was still alive. In death such a symbol can exercise as much influence as when he lived, so his killing by US commandos has not inflicted fatal damage to his organisation.

Yet his death was very important, less because its impact on al-Qa'ida than because of Bin Laden's unique position in American demonology after 9/11. It is difficult to think of anybody else in US history with the same Satanic status. President Barack Obama trumpets as one of his main achievements his administration's success in tracking Bin Laden down and eliminating him. With him dead, it became easier for the White House to proceed with the withdrawal from Afghanistan where the presence of a few hundred al-Qa'ida fighters was used to justify the presence of 90,000 US soldiers.

The shock to Americans of the 9/11 attacks may be diminished, but it is still there. As a result, any act by al-Qa'ida will go on having an impact out of all proportion to its size or capacity in future just as it had done since 9/11.

No US administration can afford to be seen by American voters as derelict in pursuing al-Qa'ida whenever it shows the slightest signs of life. Few Americans pay attention to the turmoil in Yemen, but any stirring there by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered there, attracts immediate official and media attention. It was from Yemen that two botched plots, the underpants bomber and explosives packed inside ink cartridges, were launched.

Aside from the killing of Bin Laden, have the Arab Spring uprisings and protests over the last year knocked away one of al-Qa'ida's main ideological justifications? This was that dictatorships in the Muslim world could not be peacefully overthrown and the priority was to attack the US as their chief sponsor. It is a bit glib to imagine al-Qa'ida becoming a back number in the wake of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamic and secular opponents combined their efforts to overthrow police states. But the belief that Islamic fundamentalism is passé may be exaggerated. Firstly, al-Qa'ida never planned to run for election. It will not go out of business because there are other effective methods of agitation, though its appeal may be more limited. The Israeli conflict with the Palestinians festers, as the US makes no effective efforts to restrict Israeli settlements on the West Bank and may soon explode. The political temperature of the whole region is rising and this cannot be to the disadvantage of al-Qa'ida.


I slamic militants in eastern Libya, once a recruiting ground for al-Qa'ida suicide bombers going to Iraq, were last year closely cooperating with Nato to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. They included such leaders as Abdelhakim Belhadj, former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was notoriously handed over to Gaddafi's torturers by MI6 and the CIA. Such people now publicly distance themselves from al-Qa'ida. Likewise in Egypt the Salafists, who used to denounce democracy as un-Islamic, run successfully for parliament and last week-end surprisingly adopted a liberal former Muslim Brother as their presidential candidate.

But all the news is not bad for al-Qa'ida. There is room for small groups of militants to organise without being under constant pressure of state security forces. Whatever happens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria over the next year, the states there will be weaker than before. Moreover, the near civil wars in Syria and Yemen are not over. Al-Qa'ida guerrilla fighters seasoned in Iraq have, according to the CIA, started launching suicide bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo.

There are two other reasons why al-Qa'ida has survived the death of Bin Laden and others over the last year. US security officials speak of it as if it was structured like the Pentagon with ranking officers whose killing by drones or death squads would disrupt the organisation. It was always much more ramshackle than this. Few of the al-Qa'ida militants killed over the last year are irreplaceable, an exception being perhaps Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. An intelligent, eloquent English-speaking fundamentalist and one of the few effective al-Qa'ida propagandists, he was killed by a US drone on 30 September last year.

A further reason why al-Qa'ida has proved difficult to destroy is that its most powerful elements have always been franchisees. This was true of al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which, starting in 2003, became a lethally effective organisation in Iraq until much of the Sunni community turned against it. At its peak, it controlled Sunni districts in Baghdad and elsewhere. It still has the capacity to bomb Shia areas and, though it may be weaker, it is far from being eradicated. A problem for al-Qa'ida is that being associated with the organisation in any way immediately creates a host of enemies.

In 2003-4, when al-Qa'ida grew in strength in Iraq, it brought in money and foreign suicide bombers. Today it brings few resources to embattled groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The same is true of al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in the wastes of the Sahara, kidnapping foreigners but whose motives are largely criminal.

Weakened though it may be, al Qa'ida will not fade from the headlines. This is partly because headline writers have got used to its existence as a universal bogeyman. The "war against al-Qa'ida" since 9/11 has also produced a generation of self-declared experts, think-tanks, intelligence officers and army generals who all have budgets to defend. They are never likely to declare the al-Qa'ida threat over, while emphasising, as one counter-terrorism expert said, that "we've made progress towards defeating al-Qa'ida the organisation".

US counterterrorism and intelligence officers say that al-Qa'ida could never again carry out an onslaught as devastating as 9/11. They may well be right. On the other hand, the very length of time it took for the US to find Bin Laden and his family, though they had been living in the same house for years, may show that their level of competence, in contrast to their numbers and budgets, has not improved much since the World Trade Center was destroyed.