The head of the serpent
The emir of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, is dead. The crowds in Washington and New York City celebrate with good reason. The raid that eventually located and killed the murderous jihadi leader represents a major success, and indeed an incredibly bright light in an otherwise dim decade of war. At the time of this writing, the infinity loop of media omnipresence rehearses and rehashes the debate about the ultimate meaning of Bin Laden’s death. To be sure, this is a major victory. While Bin Laden long ago ceased to be a major tactical target, his death looms large on the symbolic front. Al Qaeda suffered a massive blow with this raid, even if Bin Laden no longer “runs” this thing called “the Base.” In some sense, this may well be the death blow for the organization that Bin Laden and Zawahiri started during the Afghan resistance in the 80’s.
Of course, that view must stand in the light of the wider context, specifically of the world in 2011 rather than the world of 2001. Reflecting on the Islamic world, and particularly the Arab world, the contemporary scene presents very interesting shifts and frantic dynamism. At the beginning of the millennium, Reza Aslan suggested that the Islamic world found itself in a moment of vital transition which he compared to the Christian Protestant Reformation. In Aslan’s estimation, the “soul” and future of Islam stood in the balance, tugged between the forces of secularism, moderation and extremism. The seismic shifts that Aslan presciently presented now emerge more starkly than ever. In some sense, the Al Qaeda project failed, Not simply because of the death of its Emir, but because its virulent violence mostly fell upon the heads of Muslims. In the meantime ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemeni’s and Syrians continue to struggle for freedom and rule of law. Not a Bin Laden to be found among them. Indeed, even the legalist and largely mainstream Muslim Brotherhood was late to the revolutionary show. The Arab world moved on from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi violence of Bin Laden, and the young people of the aforementioned countries are embracing a vision that aspires towards greater integration with the rest of the globe, rather than some obscurantist vision of a global Wahabbi Khalifate.
Of course, the “beardy-weirdies,” (to quote one of my favorite recent films) are not simply going to disappear. In fact, it is safe to assume that the various local franchises of The Base will carry on, and continue to spread mayhem and violence. And mayhem is perhaps the key here. One suspects the strong possibility of local groups – in Yemen, the Caucasus, and South Asia in particular - devolving into tactics and strategies which emphasize the “love of death” over the love of life. Some noted that the Joker in the Dark Knight represented contemporary terrorism. However, Bin Laden and Zawahiri never suffered a lack of ideological vision. The Joker was simply an agent of chaos, an actor for whom mayhem was an end in itself. He is not Bin Laden, but he is Zarqawi, the figure who embodies chaos as a physical and brute force. This is perhaps the immediate future of the global jihad. With the visionary Emir buried at sea, the mujahedeen will be pushed to the fringes of the wilderness.
The moment is indeed historic. One can say that we are entering the second phase of the Islamic reformation, a version 2.0. And while secularists have achieved much in the street while the barbarians have been pushed further from the gate, hybrid and culturally promiscuous strategies such as those of Tariq Ramadan and other liberal Muslims further add depth to the field. With critical questions regarding Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring remaining unanswered, the death of Al Qaeda’s emir signals a beginning as much as an end.