Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why New Bin Ladens Might Emerge

The retrospectives and commentaries on the death of Osama Bin Laden roll in - with many of them (here's a WaPo piece)  reminding us that Bin Laden's appeal has been shrinking for years, and even more so as the "post-Islamist" Arab world of the current Arab Spring comes into being with its promise of Arab youth seizing upon non-violent means to propel forward the case for dignity and self-determination.  There's also a very insightful piece in today's NY Times by Ali Soufan, an FBI agent who has interrogated many al-Qaeda jihadists (and who figures prominently in Lawrence Wright's superb book, The Looming Tower, as one of the American agents leading the effort to unravel the mystery surrounding al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks).  He goes so far as to say that the killing of OBL may have dealt al-Qaeda a mortal blow, in that it was OBL's charisma and fund-raising prowess that kept in line the Gulf Arabs in an organization otherwise dominated by Egyptians.  OBL's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has neither his charisma nor his fund-raising appeal.  OBL's elimination is also prompting calls for, at the least, a re-think of the strategic rationale for a continuing US presence in Afghanistan, and perhaps a major drawing-down of what is an extremely costly (and, one wonders, counter-productive) American presence there.

But, in fact, al-Qaeda is not dead and gone.  As an excellent piece in the Telegraph reports, it remains strong in Yemen, and tends to take root in failing states such as Yemen, but also Libya.  We all remember that al-Qaeda flourished in the failing state that was Iraq in the wake of its "liberation" by the US, before Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq "awakened" in anger after al-Qaeda groups there tried to impose their authority on them.  (Unfortunately, the Sunni Awakening fighters have been treated shabbily by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government under Nuri al-Maliki, and may be returning to the al-Qaeda fold.)

And, as Rami Khouri reminds us (and as is copiously documented by Wright in the The Looming Tower, which I heartily recommend), Osama bin Laden's emergence as a jihadist was predicated on a set of grievances that he unfortunately chose to address with horrific violence:
Bin Laden’s death should force us to remember the reasons for Al-Qaeda’s birth. This movement crystallized and expanded in the decade from 1991 to 2001 primarily as a reactionary response to policies by three parties principally – Arab autocrats, Israel and the United States – that angered Bin Laden’s followers to the point of feeling that they felt that Islam itself was under assault and needed to be protected through a defensive military holy war, or jihad.

The vast majority of Muslims thought the Bin Laden response was nonsense. But, much more importantly, clearly documented majorities of Arabs (Muslims and Christians alike), like many other Muslims around the world, shared the basic grievances that bin Laden articulated. These were mainly about three inter-connected issues that Al-Qaeda defined as predatory policies of America and the West to dominate the Islamic world with their armies, economies and culture; Israel’s assault on the rights of Palestinians, Lebanese and other Arabs, with full Western backing; and the abusive, un-Islamic conduct of dictatorial Arab police states that were structurally supported by the United States and other Western powers.

The politically important aspect of all this is not about Osama Bin Laden’s complaints. It is the fact that these same grievances have been and remain very widely shared across the entire Arab-Islamic world, which keeps open the door for other Bin Ladens to materialize.

In the post-Bin Laden world, therefore, moving toward a safer, more stable world requires focusing on the legitimacy of these important and pervasive grievances, and then working sensibly to resolve them. It is worth recalling that foreign armies in Islamic societies were the two principal catalysts for Al-Qaeda’s initial birth and expansion – the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Saudi Arabia. So, removing American, British and other foreign armies from wars they wage in Islamic-majority societies would seem to be pivotal for the defeat and disintegration of Al-Qaeda and its clones.
I might add that besides abandoning the military solution, which has worked to America's favor neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan, it would behoove the US, even in this time of budget crisis, to provide as much as aid as it can to help rebuild the economies of the Arab countries - especially Egypt - where the Arab Spring has a chance to blossom fully and help lead the region to a much happier and more productive future. 

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