by: Djoudie Etoundi Essomba ’12
“If you make yourself more than a man, they cannot kill you”- Henri Ducard, Batman Begins
I don’t know whether Osama bin Laden was a Batman fan, but looking back on his life one has to notice that he, like the disciples of Ra’s Al Ghul, aimed to be literally larger than life. His killing by US Special Forces at a moment of seismic political upheaval in the Arab Muslim world puts Al Qaeda right back at the center of the gathering storm of our young century. A storm which may prove to be even more important to the global economy than a Eurozone break-up.
As is often the case, the most important shifts happen beyond the news cycle.
First, the tactical situation: Al Qaeda will of course live on since its leaderslong ago planned for this very moment. Since 9/11, the leadership has gone “glocal”, becoming a “global federation of autonomous local enterprises” akin to the model espoused by the most successful multinationals, effectively ensuring that the hydra can regroup indefinitely no matter how many of its leaders are killed. The real impact of the death of the organization’s “Sheikh” will be strategic not tactical. But to grasp the coming strategic shifts it is necessary to review Al Qaeda’s origins and past choices of enemies, allies, and strategies. Therein exist the answers about how the long War on Terror will progress at a time of unique change in the Arab Muslim world with potential for large scale democratization as well as radicalization.
Between the end of the Afghan Jihadagainst the Soviet Union in 1989 and the latter’s subsequent collapse in 1991, Bin Laden, with fellow Salafi-Jihadists like Abdullah Azzam, Abu Bakr Najji, Abu Musab-Al-Suri and Ayman Al Zawahiri, noticed the vitality and potential of the Islamist factions present in Afghanistan, and decided that he would unify them towards a single movement to restore the Caliphate by banking on his extensive connections with Persian Gulf billionaires and royal families. Their strategy coalesced around a few core principles:
1 -“USA ubëralles”: Anti-Americanism must supersede all other rivalries or conflicts; thus striking the US head of the “Globalization” serpent, its allies and interests is the absolute priority. The US being the military protector of Saudi Arabia, this choice quickly entails a parting of ways with the Saudi Royal Court, at least officially, for a time.
2 – “Islam without moderation”: Keep the rank and file radicalized and extreme to prevent them being coopted or seduced by superficial concessions from the New World Order. Things like Arab-Israeli peace, a Palestinian state, peace in Chechnya, economic development in Muslim countries, or the advance of women’s rights are either just superficial concessions and/or malign ideas which in the end only reinforce the infuriating Western dominance over the Lands of Islam.
3 -“Grow your spider’s web”: Cultivate and preserve constituents in governmental and military elites sympathetic in whole or in part with the goals of the Caliphate, through overt and covert means. Essentially, harness Salafi-Jihadist factions in Sudan, in the Saudi Royal Court, in Pakistan’s security and intelligence services or through more clandestine ways with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
In this regard, the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, (the Pakistani West Point and a retirement home for senior officers), is an almost comical illustration of the organic ties Al Qaeda still maintains with many countries.
9/11 was the culmination of the first phase and beginning of the second. After laying the groundwork, go global or rather, “glocal.” The reasoning was that as direct confrontation between Muslim states and the Western world inflamed tensions, global Muslim opinion would radicalize, reaching a critical mass and eventually open the way to a Salafi-Jihadist takeover in key Muslim countries. The prime target was Egypt, the political and cultural center of the Arab world (nick-named Um Al Dunya: Mother of the World); then came Saudi Arabia, home to Muslim holy sites and 1/5 of the world’s oil reserves; and Pakistan, a Muslim society with a brilliant mastery of modern technologies and incidentally the Muslim world’s only direct access to nuclear weapons. From these strongholds a general takeover was to follow, while simultaneously Al Qaeda would dissolve into the new Caliphate. Point to remember: for the Men of Al Qaida (MAQ), Al Qaida is only a stepping stone to yet better things.
The MAQ’s unity of purpose around these objectives began to diverge when confronted with something unexpected: the prospect on an Iranian nuclear bomb and renewed Iranian expansionism. A 2006 CIA report made public by the Bush administration showed the MAQ were divided almost to the breaking point over whether to ally with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in a global anti-US Jihad that could have resulted in a heretical Shiite Persian supremacy over Islam (a Shiite Caliphate) or whether to stick to a Sunni centered strategy (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). The pro-Iranians included Ayman Al Zawahiri, Saif El Adel and hundreds of other MAQ who retreated to Iran after the fall of the Taliban. Among the pro-Sunni were two commanders, both named Al-Libi, and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (who has since been slain along with one of the AL-Libi). Bin Laden leaned towards the pro-Sunni side while still maintaining overall unity thanks to his exalted status. His death reopens this underlying conflict just as the stakes have become higher than ever. So the question now is which way will Al Qaeda go?
Nine months ago I would have bet on the MAQ leaning toward Ahmadinejad no matter what, but the Arab Spring in neighboring nations, especially in Syria, is seriously undermining the Mullahs’ stability, while Egypt’s potentially Islamist realignment offers a purely Sunni option to the MAQ. And the MAQ are present everywhere in the Arab popular uprisings: from Libyan rebel military commanders, to Egypt’s recently escaped Salafi-Jihadi ex-cons, they are working quietly behind the scenes. It will be interesting to see if and how they overcome the authentic Muslim moderates and liberals also involved.
An ironic symmetry is at play here: Just as President Bush had to leave power for his Freedom agenda to make inroads through the ongoing Arab Spring, it is not impossible that bin Laden’s ultimate goal of the Caliphate required his death to come into being.