Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
The killing of Usama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qa‘ida Central, this week in Pakistan has opened the door to intense speculation about the future of the militant organization and the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that it represents. A great deal of attention has been paid to who the next leader of al-Qaeda Central, its next public face, will be. Bin Laden’s killing, while certainly a major loss to al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates, does not sound the death knell of the transnational trend known as the jihadi-takfiri (those who view Muslim holy war [jihad] as a pillar of the faith and who lightly excommunicate [takfir] and attack other Muslims who disagree with them). While the importance of his killing should be recognized, it is critically important to not exaggerate its likely impact.
A number of analysts have claimed that al-Qaeda Central and its militant call for Muslim action have been made irrelevant with the advent of the popular anti-regime uprisings across the Arab world. While not entirely incorrect, this claim is overly centered on the Arab world and ignores other regions of the Muslim world, such as South and Southwest Asia, where elements of al-Qaeda Central’s message continue to resonate with segments of the population. Though these segments are clearly a small minority, their potential negative influence is vastly greater than their actual numbers.
It is important to understand the multifaceted jihadi-takfiri message. The youth, mostly men but some women, who join al-Qaeda Central and other Muslim militant organizations cite an array of reasons for their decision to engage in violence. In their “martyrdom” wills and last testaments, either on film or in writing, they list a large number of grievances. Though they may view bin Laden as a heroic symbol and inspiration, these youth list other reasons for their decision to fight to the death.
These reasons include the U.S. military wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of Muslim civilians in drone and other types of U.S. military strikes, the occupation and siege of the Palestinian Territories, total U.S. political and military support for the Israeli state, American practices of torture, the humiliation of Muslims around the world, U.S. and European support for Arab and Muslim autocratic governments, war crimes committed by individual or small groups of U.S. military personnel.
Bin Laden’s killing will almost certainly not address these issues in the minds of the youth who support al-Qaeda Central or similar movements. Thus, the Saudi militant’s death will most likely not end the attractiveness of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that he represents. While it is true that the “Arab Spring” has been a significant setback for al-Qaeda Central and its Arab regional affiliates, it is critically important to remember that the transnational militant trend they represent are not limited to them. The future of this trend depends, in large part, to how the U.S. and European governments together with their allies around the world react to the historic events in the Arab world, conduct the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and interact with the populations of the Muslim world.
Regional militant movements such as the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan maintain their own independent networks, leadership structures, and set of country and region-specific goals, thus they are less likely than al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates to be negatively impacted by bin Laden’s killing. While these movements maintain relations or alliances with al-Qaeda Central they are not dependent on the largely Arab militant organization for their survival and maintain their own military capabilities.
In fact, in recent years al-Qaeda Central has become increasingly reliant on the military strength of its regional allies such as the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Many of the goals of the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and the Pakistani Taliban are independent of al-Qaeda Central and are unlikely to be affected by Bin Laden’s death and any turmoil that may result within al-Qaeda Central’s ranks. Chief among their raisons d’être include the continued U.S. and NATO military mission in Afghanistan and the extensive U.S. military campaign in Pakistan that is exemplified in the public eye by the extensive use of drone missile strikes that have killed a number of senior al-Qaeda Central, Pakistani Taliban, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leaders along with scores of Pakistani civilians. Estimates of the total number of people, militants and non-militants, killed in drone strikes range between 1,459 and 2,319.
Bin Laden is clearly a central and symbolic figure for al-Qaeda Central and the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that it represents. However, it is critical not to exaggerate the impact of his killing. Non-Arab jihadi-insurgent organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and even al-Qaeda Central’s regional affiliates in North Africa, the western Sahel, Yemen, and Iraq are less likely than al-Qaeda Central itself to be strongly and adversely affected by the Saudi militant’s death. Though there are early reports that bin Laden may have continued to play a role in al-Qaeda Central operations, the extent of his operational importance to the organization remains unclear.
It should also be recognized that since September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates have cultivated an influential cadre of charismatic leaders and ideologues such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah Abi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, and Anwar al-‘Awlaqi who have and will likely continue to serve as capable public voices of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend. Country and region-specific insurgent movements such as the Afghan Taliban will continue their insurgencies as long as the raisons d’être remain. In short, careful perspective is needed in evaluating the effects of bin Laden’s death on the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend represented by al-Qaeda Central, which is not synonymous with more regional Islamist insurgencies such as that of the Afghan Taliban.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.