Al Qaeda is over
Osama Bin Laden, seen in an undated photo, attending a meeting with a Kalashnikov on his lap in an undisclosed place.
May 2nd, 2011
04:11 PM ET

Al Qaeda is over

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.

I invite you to share your thoughts below and to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

soundoff (921 Responses)
  1. Boruch N. Hoffinger

    There is a similar event in Jewish history.
    'Yael' (A Jewish woman) cut of 'Sisera's' head and the wicked army ran in terror.

    May 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  2. UninformedFactor

    AL-Qaeda was actually CIA trained... imagine if the US was smart enough to not train them in the first place...

    May 8, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  3. JPalto

    AQ lives on. It isn't like UBL was the sole organizer of that group. Yeah there are other important members in that group like Omar the one eyed man who is perhaps more mysterious than UBL.

    May 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  4. Prasad Manoharan

    Hope this is true. The radicals are a different breed & one must be always be cautiously optimistic when it comes to analyzing them.
    This movement started couple of decades ago in Egypt has now has spread through out the World.

    May 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  5. Bill Wood

    It is not universally true that "History teaches us that the loss of the charismatic leader – of the symbol – is extraordinarily damaging for the organization". Christianity grew after - many would hold because of - Jesus' death. Islam grew and flourished after Mohammed's death. So clearly, even a horrible organization like al Quaeda can still thrive with bin Laden gone. We would be arrogant to assume otherwise

    May 9, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  6. Frank Mondana

    "History teaches us that the loss of the charismatic leader – of the symbol – is extraordinarily damaging for the organization". You have to be a bit careful with this. Usually when a groups leader dies, the organization continues but at a diminished capacity.
    The "big but" is that Al Qaeda is deeply rooted in religion and not political or social. Religious leaders hold sway long after they die. The Muslims, Mormons, Lutherans, and Catholics (counting St. Peter as the OG) flourished after the original leaders died. Look at Scientology. Even Christianity as a whole is stronger now than when OG-JC kicked those fellows out of the temple.
    The worse part is that those who inherit the group change the philosophy according to their own whims and feelings almost always perverting the intentions of the leaders. Founding leaders of religions become symbols and symbols have an annoying way of staying alive.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  7. andrew

    If it wasn't for the fact that President Obama in a Black man with a foreign sounding name noone would be pouring over the death of Osama Bin laden in so much detail. Their would be celebrations and people cracking open Champaign to celebrate the Arab Spring and the Death of the Evil doer.
    Instead we have conspiracy theorists and Right Wingers congratulating Republicans for using torture in capturing Bin Laden, a clear reference to the way the police dealth with trouble makers in the Deep South during the civil rights era. Well the death of Bin Laden does not justify police brutality in finding him. Two wars prove this.

    May 17, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Reply
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  24. Bill

    No, we don't need, as you put , a "proffessor or somethink" to tell what is the truth. The problem now is that we have so few people who can, or want to, think for themselves. You want someone to tell you what is the truth, where to go, what to do, and what is right or wrong in this world. Sounds to me like you amd Mr. Zippy are brothers.

    What those soldiers did is right and they should be commended. The President, on the other hand, may have ulterior motives for doing this at this time. Whatever the reason, it is a good thing that had to be done and I, for one, thank them.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Reply
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