Editor’s Note: This is the first of three posts from Fareed Zakaria on the death of Osama bin Laden. The other posts are Vindication of Obama's strategy and What did Pakistan know? You can follow Fareed on Facebook and Twitter or timely analysis of global events.
By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a number of people are saying that this does not mean that al Qaeda has been destroyed. Some argue that the organization may, in fact, be thriving. Front-page articles in both The New York Times and The Washington Post make this claim. Many officials from Obama downward are saying this.
I understand why officials have to say this. They want to be cautious. They don’t want to overpromise.
But the truth is this is a huge, devastating blow to al Qaeda, which had already been crippled by the Arab Spring. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the end of al Qaeda in any meaningful sense of the word.
Al Qaeda is not an organization that commands massive resources. It doesn’t have a big army. It doesn’t have vast reservoirs of funds that it can direct easily across the world.
Al Qaeda was an idea and an ideology, symbolized by an extremely charismatic figure in Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was this Saudi prince-like figure who had gone into the mountains of Afghanistan forsaking the riches of a multibillion-dollar fortune, fought against the Soviets, demonstrated personal bravery and then crafted a seductive message about Islam and Islamic extremism as a path to destroy the corrupt regimes of the Middle East.
History teaches us that the loss of the charismatic leader - of the symbol - is extraordinarily damaging for the organization. It is very difficult to keep such an organization together, particularly in the absence of great power backers.
In the case of al Qaeda, this is a virtual organization held together by its message and the inspiration it provided. A large part of that inspiration was bin Laden. Ayman Zawahiri may have been the brains behind the outfit, but he did not excite people. When people volunteered for jihad, they were volunteering to be bin Laden’s foot soldiers, not Ayman Zawahiri’s or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s. The loss of bin Laden’s personality is hugely important because it was so much part of al Qaeda’s appeal.
In addition, we must remember that the death of bin Laden is not occurring in a vacuum. The Arab Awakening has already crippled the basic rationale of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda existed because bin Laden argued that the regimes of the Arab world were dictatorial and oppressive. He argued that the United States was supporting those regimes and, as a result, Muslims had to engage in terrorism against the United States and those regimes. He claimed that the only way to achieve change was through violence, terrorism and Islamic extremism.
In the past few months, we have seen democratic, peaceful, non-Islamic revolutions transform Egypt and Tunisia. We are seeing these forces changing almost every government in the Arab world. Al Qaeda is not in the picture. So when you combine the Arab Spring with bin Laden’s death, you have a very powerful one-two punch to al Qaeda.
Certainly, there are groups of terrorists around the world, some of which now call themselves al Qaeda. These groups are loosely affiliated in some sense. But gangs of bad guys have always been around.
With the death of bin Laden, the central organizing ideology that presented an existential seduction to the Muslim world and an existential threat to the Western world is damaged beyond repair. We’re left with free-lance terrorists who will, of course, be able to inflict some harm. But the Somali pirates are able to inflict harm on civilians, and that doesn’t turn them into an existential threat to the Western world.
That existential threat is gone.