The Impact of Osama bin Laden's Death on International Islamic Terrorism

Following  the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Al Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden became the main preoccupation of the US intelligence services. Almost one decade later, on May, 2nd 2011, US President Barack Obama put an end to the hunt when he personally ordered 24 soldiers from SEAL Team Six to land in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Forty minutes later the operation ended with the death of Bin Laden. As news of what had happened began to emerge, hundreds of US citizens converged on Ground Zero to celebrate the “evil man’s demise”, and Obama to declare: “Justice has been done”.

It would be a miscalculation to believe that, with Al Qaeda’s leader now dead, his terrorist organisation and, indeed international Islamic terrorism itself, will disappear. It is necessary to pay closer attention to a variety of factors that impact the situation: Al Qaeda’s internal structure, the effectiveness of Bin Laden’s leadership, the new strategic position of the United States in the AfPak region (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and, more broadly, in the Middle East (given the context of the ongoing Arab Revolutions). There are, therefore, three key areas to assess with regards to the consequences of Bin Laden’s death: Islamic worldwide terrorism, the USA, the AfPak region.

Even though Al Qaeda’s central organisation was deeply weakened after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, the death of its leader did not have any profound impact on its organisation and on Islamist terrorism. Indeed, Al Qaeda is neither a pyramidal and hierarchical organisation nor simply an evasive network; it is an ideology and a banner.

Al Qaeda is characterised by its global dimensions and its degree of decentralisation. Many automous groups have been created in Iraq (AQI), in North Africa (AQMI) and in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and all claim to belong to Al Qaeda. There are, however, no accurate and definite links between Al Qaeda and its branches. AQMI is undoubtedly the most active and dangerous group, but the death of Bin Laden does not impact its activities as it is geographically remote and Bin Laden had no decision-making power within its disparate parts. Furthermore, Bin Laden was seriously limited in his ability to communicate and to control the organisation. The de facto head of the network for the past seven years has been the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the jihadist ideology today is spread wide enough to exist without any central command. The recent terrorist attack in Marrakech and the hostage taking in the Sahara are evidence that the organisation is still able to act locally and punctually. Bin Laden’s death is strictly symbolic and is not a strategic victory in the struggle against Al Qaeda, its branches or the international Islamist threat.

Nonetheless, in the United States Bin Laden’s death permitted Barack Obama to gain political strength 18 months before the next Presidential elections. The US administration is now free to utilise this symbol as a pretext for reshaping its regional and international political agenda in the wider Middle East, particularly AfPak. Consequently, Obama announced a significant US withdrawal from Afghanistan, whereas Pakistan – previously a major US ally in the region – has been reprimanded and her dependability and trustworthiness have been called into question. The United States expressed doubts concerning the complicity of the Pakistani regime in concealing Bin Laden. Indeed, Islamabad is afraid of becoming increasingly trapped between what it considers to be hostile regimes in India and now also Afghanistan. The Pakistani regime has therefore continued to give tacit support to the Taliban and other ‘insurgents’ in Afghanistan since 2001. By doing so, Pakistan hopes to retain some influence over its neighbour’s political future, post-US withdrawal. The US administration will probably take this opportunity to accelerate the shift in its alliance from Pakistan to India that has been underway since the advances made under President George W. Bush.

In conclusion, Bin Laden’s importance within international terrorism has been overestimated, and the ability of the Islamist ideology to resist and survive the death of Al Qaeda’s leader should not be underestimated. Without doubt it is a political victory for President Obama and a symbolic victory for Western countries in their struggle against terrorism, but it is not a strategic and definitive victory on the ground. Whilst Al Qaeda and its allies have certainly been weakened since 2001, they are still very much alive.

Pierre Liscia is studying for an MA International Security Studies at London Metropolitan University.