Monday, May 2, 2011

Draughts, not Chess: bin Laden's death is not victory

US President Obama claims that Osama bin Laden has been killed. The BBC website is now in the unusual position that every single one of its top 10 most-read stories relates to this one event:

How will bin Laden's death affect the world? Remember first that Al Qaeda was already losing, as it has been for years and years. They had one trump card to play with 9/11, hoping that the spectacular nature of that attack would prompt a violent American overreaction against Muslims which would in turn cause a pan-Islamic uprising and the birth of a new Caliphate stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.

In this they failed. The US-led invasion of Iraq did inspire a new wave of terrorists but they were far too few in number to seriously shake the status quo. Attacks in places like Bali, Madrid and London killed hundreds but they were nowhere near the spectacular size of 9/11. Al Qaeda decentralised under Allied pressure and unrelated splinter Islamist groups started to use the title to inspire fear: Al Qaeda was franchised out. Yet they never managed to convince the majority of Muslims to join the cause and without mass support the Al Qaeda vanguard was doomed to defeat. Just days ago a Wikileaks file showed that 9/11 'mastermind' Khalid Sheikh Mohammed warned that if bin Laden were captured or killed Al Qaeda would unleash a 'nuclear hellstorm' on Europe, with a hidden nuclear weapon. Minutes turn to hours and no bomb has gone off. They were bluffing, Al Qaeda are much weaker than they claim.

That they couldn't create a new Caliphate does not render them safe. Radicals will probably continue bombing and killing despite the growing obviousness that they will never succeed with their more global goals. Local Islamist struggles, and Muslim nationalist struggles in places like Kashmir and Philippines, will probably carry on until local solutions are found.

Will a new wave of men and women be rallied to the cause at bin Laden's martyrdom? Certainly I would have preferred to see the arrest of bin Laden, a trial and sentencing, and decades locked up behind bars. With no climactic violence, that grim imprisonment could have removed a lot of his romantic gloss.

Also the US seems to have taken a very strange decision in burying bin Laden's body at sea. This is perfect for conspiracy theorists who will claim that bin Laden was never killed.

My guess is that the decentralised Al Qaeda will be demoralised, but only a little, to lose this figurehead. Attacks will continue and splinter groups will keep fighting for their more local causes, but the fact that terrorism is clearly failing to achieve its grander strategic goals might slowly lose it supporters.

So, despite the domination of BBC's most popular stories list, bin Laden's death may not have a major impact on international politics. In World War II the Allies were fighting highly centralised states with extremely powerful individuals like Hitler running things from top-down. That was chess: capture the king and the game ends.

Now they struggle against an idea embraced by individuals radicalised online and barely-connected organisations, a loose web of extremists with no king to capture. This is draughts, not chess, and the loss of a single figure will not win the whole game.


  1. Hamas and Hezbollah, in contrast, have flourished despite the past loss of their top brass. In 2004, Israel eliminated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s founder, and then his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, employing helicopter-fired missiles in both cases. Israel killed Hezbollah's secretary-general, Abbas Mussawi, in a helicopter strike in 1992, and its director of military (i.e., terrorist) operations, Imad Mughniyeh, with a car bomb in 2008. Yet both organizations are stronger today than when they lost their respective leaders. Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah recently managed to topple the pro-Western government of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and install Najib Mikati, a candidate more to its liking. Both movements are quickly becoming quasi-regular forces, armed with a frightening array of missiles provided by their patrons in Damascus and Tehran.

    Why do some terrorist organizations wilt from a decapitation strategy, while others manage to flourish? In the aforementioned cases, much of the answer has to do with the fact that the Shining Path and the PKK, although large movements, were built around a cult of personality. Remove that personality, and it becomes difficult for followers to fill the gap. Hamas and Hezbollah, however, have always had a more collective leadership that could better survive losses at the top. Both groups also control substantial territory, which makes it harder to uproot them no matter how many leaders they lose.


  2. Terrorist Organization for Dummies, Lesson #1: Do not build your organization around a cult personality. That person can be caught or killed.

  3. Good points there Umut. I guess it remains to be seen how important bin Laden was in Al Qaeda, whether his personality was a rallying point for the movement. Even without him I guess some radical groups will continue. Perhaps they will shift from attacking the Far Enemy of the US and its allies back to attacking the Near Enemy of non-Islamist Arab leaders.

    Interesting times!


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