Monday, May 02, 2011

Bin Laden's Death A Part Of Al Qaeda's Slow Decline

Osama bin Laden is dead. The leader of Al Qaeda was apparently shot and killed at a compound in Pakistan by American special forces. He'd been in hiding for almost a decade since ordering the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The death of bin Laden is undoubtedly symbolic. As well as being the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, he was its name and, through the video messages which had such a global impact in the months and years after 9/11, he was its face.

But, in practical terms, his death will have little impact on a network which has already been in gradual decline for some years. Bin Laden has been holed up in a house with little opportunity to communicate with the outside world, so his influence on Al Qaeda's people and operations has probably been extremely limited since 2001.

Besides, Al Qaeda, which roughly translates as "the base," has never been a conventional military or guerrilla type terrorist group, such as the Tamil Tigers or IRA. It's always been a very loose affilitation of groups in assorted parts of the world, often with wildly differing views and methods. The role of Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants has usually been one of financier, facilitator and, though his favourite philosophical notion of "propaganda by deed" - suicide bombings to you and me - inspiration.

The death of Bin Laden will weaken the idea of Al Qaeda as a central network still further. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is primarily based in Yemen, will carry on regardless. But with the Arab Spring suggesting that, in some countries at least, there's a desire for a democratic rather than Islamist future, those groups increasingly look like they're alongside Bin Laden on the wrong side of history.

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