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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Larger than Death

We think of iconic figures as being larger than life, but within the world of Al Qaeda and its allies and supporters, fallen warriors take on a larger-than-death quality.

The U.S. has killed Osama bin Laden and Anwar Awalki, and now is the time to study the question: What happens when you decapitate al Qaeda figureheads?

Our strategy has been predicated on the assumption that we're better off with these figures dead than alive, and that's probably true. But it's also testable now. We can watch how the jihadi community processes these deaths and take lessons from what we see, in the weeks and months to come.

Consider the case of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden's mentor, who shepherded the foreign fighter community into the jihad against the Soviets and was involved in the founding of al Qaeda. Azzam was assassinated by a car bomb in 1989. There are only guesses about who was responsible, but suspects include the CIA, the Mossad, Jordanian intelligence and his own allies/rivals, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Azzam's been dead for more than 20 years, but he's still one of the most powerful radicalizing figures in the jihadist pantheon. I would love for the FBI to release a comparative study showing how many U.S.-based terrorists were arrested with Azzam's videos and writings on their computers as opposed to the works of Awlaki. I predict it's at least 50-50, and the advantage might well go to Azzam.

For instance, Roshonara Choudhry, a lone wolf terrorist who stabbed a British MP, cited both Awlaki and Azzam as having pushed her toward violence -- but said Azzam was the one who convinced her to act.

Long after his death, Azzam is revered for his role in the Afghan jihad. His lectures are available online, with English translations, and his books are widely available in English as well. Azzam was an effective and emotional speaker, and an educated scholar who ranks among the most important thinkers within the jihadist movement.

It's clear that Azzam's death did not detract from his power. On the one hand, the fact that he died may have prevented him from creating other, even more important works. On the other hand, his death prevented him from making mistakes and taking actions (such as joining al Qaeda terrorism) that might have diminished his stature.

Osama bin Laden and Anwar Awlaki have now been frozen in time. They will always be the people they are today, any improvement or diminishment of their stature is likely to be minimal, aside from a trickle of new information and unreleased works.

In bin Laden's case, death froze him at a point where his stature had diminished (rightfully or wrongly). His body of works -- audio, video and texts -- are competent but not (in my opinion) especially stirring from an emotional standpoint nor are they especially important in their intellectual content. They are, ultimately, political tracts tied to a certain time and place, and they may not age well.

Awlaki is a different story. Intellectually, he's only a shadow of Azzam. Awlaki's contributions to jihadist thought are negligible, his primary strength was interpreting the work of other ideologues in ways that made them relevant and emotionally resonant to English-speaking audiences. In that role, he was an unparalleled talent, and emotional resonance probably matters more in terms of keeping the flame alive after the body has passed.

Awlaki's personal life narrative may also make his death matter more. For bin Laden, frankly, there was really only one way that his story could end after September 11, and even his adherents accepted that. Awlaki's life story is more rounded and diverse, and his death is already seen as tragic by a wider audience, including people outside of extremist circles. That meme may spread over time and create new headaches for counterterrorism.

But all this is speculation. Now is the time to watch how different communities react to these events and to learn from what transpires. It may be tempting for analysts, after 10 long years and these landmark deaths, to call it a war and move on to other subjects.

Give it a little longer.

Video: J.M. Berger on Fox News discussing Awlaki's 'Larger than death' legacy

For more about Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam's role in radicalizing Americans, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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