Jihad loses its Aesop

Osama bin Laden has finally been killed. As excitement over the operation subsides, it is worth pondering over the implications of Bin Laden’s death — for both Al Qaeda and the United States. The central question pertains to the nature of Al Qaeda as an organisation and Bin Laden’s role as its leader. Experts are deeply divided.

Some argue that after its expulsion from Afghanistan in 2001, Al Qaeda transformed itself into a networked organisation with franchises and affiliates spread across the globe. The real threat, they held, came from such grassroots terrorism or the “leaderless jihad”, as Marc Sageman called it. Others disagreed. That the organisation increasingly relied on networks of smaller outfits to carry out attacks was evident. But they insisted that the role of “Al Qaeda Central” — the top leadership including Bin Laden and his close associates — should not be overlooked. Al Qaeda Central continued to be deeply involved in planning, financing and training for terror attacks.
The notion that Al Qaeda is a completely flat and non-hierarchical organisation is not supported by much evidence. Nevertheless, the alternate view also needs to be qualified. In recent years, Bin Laden’s importance to Al Qaeda stemmed neither from his financial resources nor his organisational abilities. Rather it was in his unique position as the narrator of stories about “global jihad” that he sought to wage against the West.
Part of the reason why Al Qaeda managed to attract a steady stream of recruits and to mount a series of major attacks was Bin Laden’s perceptive understanding of the impact of the information revolution on modern warfare. Interestingly, his thinking evolved almost in parallel to that of Western militaries which also sought to usher in a “revolution in military affairs” by harnessing information dominance to precision strike capabilities. But where the United States and its allies saw this revolution as taking conventional warfare to a new level, Bin Laden understood its potential in unconventional war — a form of combat that came yet again to the fore since the mid-1990s. In these “wars among the people”, winning the support of the populace was as important as physical destruction of the enemy. To do so, it was essential to shape people’s understanding of the nature of the struggle, the stakes involved, the progress of operations and the eventual outcome.
Bin Laden was quick to grasp the importance of this battle of story lines about the war. This came out quite clearly in a letter sent in July 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the so-called Al Qaeda in Iraq. Following a spate of attacks on Shia mosques in Iraq, Bin Laden sought to dissuade Zarqawi from persisting with them. Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, wrote to Zarqawi, “I say to you: that we are in a battle and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma”.
It was here that Bin Laden played a crucial leadership role in Al Qaeda. His periodic press statements and video messages constantly updated and retold Al Qaeda’s version of the progress of “global jihad”. In these messages, Bin Laden skilfully wove together the latest developments with the long-term trends, and tactical outcomes with strategic objectives. It was his ability to shape the ideological narrative that kept the diffused and loosely-networked organisation going after 2001.
With the exit of Bin Laden, Al Qaeda is certainly going to find it tough to keep the momentum going in the information domain. Bin Laden’s associates may have a better grasp of operations or a deeper understanding of jihadist thought, but none could rival him for the position of narrator-in-chief. Al Qaeda and its affiliates will continue to attempt major strikes, but their ability to impart strategic momentum to their campaign will be impaired in the absence of Bin Laden. The fact that his death coincides with wider changes in the greater Middle East, where popular mood has swung sharply in favour of peaceful change, poses a greater problem for the residual Al Qaeda leadership.
The elimination of Bin Laden is also likely to have significant implications for the United States’ stance in the AfPak theatre. From the outset, the Obama administration has been divided between those — primarily the US military leadership — who favour a strong counterinsurgency strategy aimed against the Taliban and those — led by vice-president Joe Biden and supported by the intelligence community — who advocate a nimbler counter-terrorism strategy focused on Al Qaeda. After many months of discussion, US President Barack Obama arrived at a compromise strategy that accorded highest priority to the liquidation of Al Qaeda but also emphasised the importance to degrade the Taliban’s ability to threaten the Afghan state.
The successful operation against such a high-value target as Bin Laden is likely to tip the balance in favour of the advocates of counter-terrorism. This would fit well with Mr Obama’s desire to draw down American troop levels in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. The institutional changes that are now in the offing may work in the same direction. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief Leon Panetta is tipped to take over as the secretary defence; Gen. David Petraeus, the strongest advocate of the counterinsurgency strategy, seems set to take over as director of the CIA, the agency that spearheads the counter-terrorism effort. In short, the removal of Bin Laden is likely to accentuate America’s quest for an early exit from Afghanistan.
In so doing, the US will necessarily seek Pakistan’s support in cobbling together peace deals with the various Taliban groups. The fact that Bin Laden was taken out in Pakistan might aggravate prevailing American suspicion of its key ally. But the consequence of his death could well be increased American dependence on Pakistan. For India, then, it is going to be business as usual.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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