Monday, 2 May 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden

Especially after Bush essentially stopped chasing him in Afghanistan, I never expected this to happen. But Osama bin Laden is dead, shot by US Navy Seals in the early hours of this morning. Symbolically, this will be a monumental moment for a lot of people - but in reality it changes very little.

Barack Obama, of course, is probably of the opinion that his second term is in the bag. He can now claim the prestige of being the president who killed bin Laden. It also draws attention quite nicely away from the whole ridiculous "birther" nonsense and lunatics like Donald Trump. At the same time, it is likely that the incident will provide a short-term boost to the markets, which will be another political positive for the incumbent administration.

On a less cynical note, for the families of those killed on September 11th, this will perhaps provide some much-needed closure. The sense that justice has been done will come as a considerable relief, even if bin Laden was more of an ideological inspiration for the attacks than their direct organiser.

As the New York Times notes, "terrorism experts say Bin Laden had been largely a symbolic figure in recent years who had little if any direct role in a metastasizing terrorist threat worldwide." What they have lost, perhaps, is a sense of ideological cohesion, its "mystique," and "its attraction among violent jihadists." However, with the Al Qaeda network evolving into one largely without hierarchy, each cell or affiliate acting autonomously and "largely self-sustaining," there is in reality no "head" to cut off so that the body of the organisation withers away.

What the death may do, to the contrary, is give the organisation some renewed exposure at a time when Middle Eastern politics is largely dominated by secular revolutions born out of class frustrations.

Islamist doctrines, like white nationalist doctrines in the West, thrive by being able to funnel the genuine frustrations of ordinary people down a reactionary path. The strength of a movement which could challenge imperialism and tyranny without resort to religious ideology or terrorism sidelined them in a significant section of their backyard. But with Islamists vowing that the death would not be the end of them, and hinting at revenge, this may provide them with an opportunity to reassert themselves.

We must hope, of course, that that doesn't happen. Indeed, despite being blotted from view by the war in Libya, it seems that there is enough momentum in the revolutionary movements that they will not dissolve in the face of any fallout from bin Laden's death. Certainly, I would hope so.

Terrorism experts in the New York Times seem confident that "although al Qaeda may not fragment immediately, the loss of Bin Laden puts the group on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse." They, too, cite the Arab revolutions as an additional factor in this. But if indeed Al Qaeda is dying, there will almost certainly be violent death throes before that happens. The effects of this will be difficult to judge, on all sides of the Middle East's present struggles.