Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden
03 May 2011
Dr Luca Anceschi
This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 2 May 2011.
In announcing the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama's carefully crafted words brought the US population back to the morning of September 11, 2001.
Conjuring up the images of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon supported the US President in his efforts at evoking the spirit of 9/11. The images of US citizens cheering outside the White House and at Ground Zero seem to indicate that the President's eloquence did not miss its intended target. Nevertheless, when contextualised in recent developments in the war on terror, bin Laden's death appears to be nothing more than a symbolic victory in Washington's war against global terrorism. Linking its announcement to 9/11 represents an astute attempt to focus on the past, while diverting the population's attention from the scarce success encountered in the military operations conducted by the US in Afghanistan.
How this event affects the wider outcome of the war on terror – which bin Laden unleashed in 1998 and, more decisively, September 2001 – is not clear, as concluding that bin Laden's demise is a real breakthrough in the global campaign against Salafi jihadism might represent a rather challenging undertaking.
Advertisement: Story continues below To my mind, three main factors seem to suggest that Osama bin Laden's death might not have a decisive influence on the future of the war on terror.
First, bin Laden's fugitive status progressively marginalised his direct involvement in al-Qaeda's actions, at least those taking place in the Afghani context. In this sense, the recent death of fellow Saudi combatant Abdul Ghani, announced by the Pentagon no more than a week ago, seems to have inferred a more decisive blow to al-Qaeda field activities in Afghanistan. At the same time, bin Laden's propagandist efforts – and the global impact of his worldviews – have been significantly constrained by his hiding. Bin Laden's most recent audio message – whose authenticity has been often questioned by prominent observers – was issued in mid-2010, in further confirmation of the leader's increasing disconnection with the ideological component of al-Qaeda operations.
Secondly, the recent Arab unrest appeared to have decreased the relevance of the Afghani conflict in global jihad dynamics. Libya and, perhaps most importantly, Yemen are the new frontiers for contemporary Salafi jihadism: in these contexts, recruitment procedures, organisation and implementation of terrorist practices will be managed by a new generation of al-Qaeda ''activists'', whose affiliation with bin Laden will be progressively decreased to purely symbolic links. Future generations of Salafi jihadist will look at bin Laden as a martyr, rather than as a hands-on leader.
Finally, so far as the expected impact of bin Laden's death on the resolution of the Afghani conflict, the Iraqi experience has already indicated that eliminating the principal enemy – in that case Saddam Hussein – has not inevitably led to a rapid conclusion of military operations on the field, let alone to a victory of US-led troops.
In conclusion, a qualitative improvement in Barack Obama's domestic support appears to be the major short-term consequence of the death of Osama bin Laden. In the context of the forthcoming presidential campaign, news coming from the remote Pakistani town of Abbottabad is welcome with significant relief in the White House, capitalising domestically from a symbolic foreign policy victory.
Luca Anceschi is lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University.