So We've Killed Osama Bin Laden;
What Happens Next Matters
Osama bin Laden is dead. So what happens now?
There have been a number of pieces outlining what should be (but isn't) the obvious fact that the war on terrorism is far from over. Check out the following piece by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
for an exhaustive review and a more concise but still very good version from Eric Schmitt
of the New York Times.
The big picture analysis and commentary will be flowing all day and for some time to come. I want to talk about a couple of high-stakes questions about what happens next. NO PICTURES PLEASE
When Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed, the U.S. government trotted out pictures of the body almost immediately and within hours, jihadists online had transformed those pictures into online shrines to Zarqawi's martyrdom. As I noted in a post last year
, it would be a tremendous mistake to do the same thing with bin Laden. Jihadist propaganda thrives on pictures of dead martyrs -- and there's no bigger martyr than Osama bin Laden. It's probably inevitable that the pictures will come out, but hopefully it will be months or years later, when passions and interests have diminished somewhat. It will still be a big deal even later, but it's better not to give the jihadis a rallying image at this critical moment. MESSAGING AND OPERATIONS
This is arguably the most critical moment in the history of Al Qaeda Central. While the war on terrorism, and the Al Qaeda movement, is far from over, Al Qaeda's core operation -- Al Qaeda 1.0, the organization that carried out September 11 -- has suffered a series of challenges over the last several months.
Al Qaeda has always been more about narrative than capabilities. It didn't militarily defeat the Soviets and it was never going to militarily defeat the United States. The question was whether it could create a compelling narrative claim of victory, as it did with the Soviets. Truth is not what's important here, perception is. And that's a two-edged sword.
The Arab uprisings have created a new and growing narrative about Al Qaeda's irrelevance. If Ayman Al-Zawahiri is too slow in issuing a messaging response and a military (i.e., terrorist) response to bin Laden's death, that narrative is going to snowball, and it's going to be a big challenge for Al Qaeda Central to recover.
Zawahiri critically fumbled the ball on the Arab uprisings by issuing a tedious, multipart history lesson that seemed to have been half-written before the protests even started. If he doesn't come out with a strong and relevant statement within the next couple of days, he's going to look even more out of touch and irrelevant, and risks appearing to cower in the face of American threats. And I will wager good money that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will have an issue of Inspire on "newsstands" before Zawahri speaks, further boosting the status of AQAP against AQ Central.
Similarly, the uprisings created significant narrative pressure on the broad Al Qaeda movement to carry out terrorist or other military operations. The narrative question here is: If Al Qaeda can't strike in the middle of rampant chaos, can it really do anything outside of Afghanistan? Again, the truth is less important than the perception. Al Qaeda can't afford to look toothless, because teeth are really the only thing that the terrorist organization has to offer. Unlike Hamas, Al Qaeda offers no social services. Its religious scholarship is questionable at best. Despite recent tentative efforts, it has no coherent political platform. If Al Qaeda doesn't have a military capability, it doesn't have much of anything. If AQC cannot carry out a credible strike in revenge for bin Laden's death, it's going to be left behind by its more vigorous children in Yemen and Somalia, among others.
Of course, the franchises will also be under pressure to act, and whoever acts first is going to get a big boost. If absolutely none of Al Qaeda's franchises even manage to carry out a serious strike in the near to mid-term future, we're going to have to revisit a whole lot of assumptions. Unfortunately, I expect we don't have to worry about that problem.
One can argue, of course, that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are patient, long-term planners, which is absolutely true, and that they can afford to wait this out, which may be true. But the fact is that we live in a world where the rate of change is phenomenal and accelerating, and Arab spring shows that the culture of speed is not just a Western affectation. In order to be a force on the world stage, jihadism has to make some concessions to the tempo of the modern world.
Of course, if Al Qaeda does act quickly, it will expose Ayman Al-Zawahiri and its most important operatives to an unprecedented level of risk, given the intelligence that was most certainly acquired during the bin Laden strike. To win the battle, Zawahiri should be hiking out into the wilderness for a long camping trip with just a couple close friends. To stay in the war, he's going to have to take risks. And if we capture or kill Zawahiri within weeks of capturing or killing bin Laden, the narrative of Al Qaeda Central is likely to suffer a catastrophic collapse.
And hitting Awlaki at the same time... Well, I'll save that for another day, but a trifecta here would really create some fundamental change on the battlefield. Not because Awlaki's a particularly good or necessarily vital operational leader. Again, it's the narrative. TEST FOR THE LONE WOLVES
The stakes are also high for those who argue that Abu Musab Al Suri has revolutionized the terrorist world through his concept of "leaderless jihad." If lone-wolfism has truly arrived on the world stage, we should expect to see a series of lone actors striking out over the next several days. If not now, then when?
There's been a lot of talk about leaderless jihad, and I think that analysts have, so far, given Al Suri credit for a lot more influence and efficacy than he has, so far, deserved. This is Al Suri's moment. If leaderless jihad is the wave of the future, we're going to see dozens of individual actors carry out small attacks to avenge bin Laden over the next few days. If leaderless jihad is a lot of hot air, the lone-wolves will stay home and try to score "rep points"
on the forums with their clever posts about bin Laden's death.
Let me be perfectly honest here and say I don't know which way this will go. Leaderless jihad has largely underwhelmed over the last few years. The attacks have been truly small and most (but not all) have lacked serious impact. They also haven't been truly leaderless as most (but not all) of the terrorists who have been classified as lone wolves had (or thought they had) contacts with formal terrorist networks including Al Qaeda Central.
We need to watch this situation closely because it's the real proof of concept. If we don't see a significantly large series of individual actors spontaneously rise to violence in response to this news, I'm inclined to think that "leaderless jihad" (like Louis Beam's earlier "leaderless resistance") will be a perennial underachiever and should be demoted in terms of national security priorities.
If the lone wolves do rise up en masse, we need to start having some new national conversations. Stay tuned. J.M. Berger is the author of "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam," hitting bookstands in less than two weeks. Order today!
Labels: Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda-In-The-Arabian-Peninsula, Anwar-Aulaqi, Ayman-Al-Zawahiri, Osama-Bin-Laden
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.