How terrorists cope with their leader's death
May 11th, 2011
04:07 PM ET

How terrorists cope with their leader's death

Editor's Note: Brynjar Lia is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) and the author of several acclaimed books on militant Islamism. For more by Brynjar Lia, visit Foreign Affairs.

By Brynjar Lia, Foreign Affairs

Since 9/11, two schools of thought have emerged about Osama bin Laden’s role in al Qaeda. The first holds that after 2001 he was largely a symbolic and isolated figurehead. The other posits that he was the organization’s key inspirational and ideological leader. Yet the Pentagon’s initial leaks about the information found on the computers confiscated by Navy SEALs during their May 1 raid on bin Laden’s compound strongly suggest that he had attempted a more hands-on approach than both schools assumed - whether the rest of al Qaeda paid attention is another matter.

On May 6, a U.S. government official told CNN that bin Laden “worked at the operational and even tactical levels. . . . He was clearly issuing directions at all levels.” From his strategically placed compound, with couriers and assistants to help, he was also apparently overseeing the details of a planned attack on U.S. public rail transportation to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Furthermore, the huge trove of computers, storage devices and cell phones that the Navy SEALs retrieved from his villa shattered the myth that he was isolated thanks to a supposed aversion to electronic devices. Bin Laden was more able to communicate with and direct the broader al Qaeda organization than anyone had realized.

This should not have come as a surprise. Those who argue that bin Laden was completely isolated tended to ignore his public speeches, which he often used to issue orders. In late 2004, he ordered attacks on Western oil supply lines, especially in the Gulf region.In 2006 and again in 2008, he offered instructions for the al Qaeda response to the caricature of Muhammad first published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. In 2007 and 2009, he released statements calling for al Qaeda to send fighters and assistance to Islamists in Somalia. Finally, this January, he released an audio message offering conditions for the release of French hostages that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is still holding. In the coming days, more instructions are sure to follow; shortly before his death, bin Laden reportedly recorded a speech on this spring’s Arab revolutions.

Yet although bin Laden continued to release statements, in truth he was no longer the dominating voice in the jihadi narrative. His leadership was at times controversial within al Qaeda. Critics, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, an al Qaeda theorist, accused him of being authoritarian - of failing to practice the Islamic injunction of consultation. Moreover, his rhetorical gifts were good, but not outstanding; one of his media advisers forbade visiting journalists to record their interviews with bin Laden, fearing that he might misquote Koranic verses and other Islamic texts. In short, he was not, and was not seen as, an infallible leader.

Added to this is the fact that, in recent years, bin Laden’s ability to incite and inspire followers was limited. Unlike Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, who personally met with every suicide commando team prior to their final mission, bin Laden is not known to have met with followers after 2002. In his absence, other mid-level leaders filled the gap, persuading throngs of young men (and women) to volunteer for al Qaeda’s suicide missions.

Moreover, bin Laden’s speeches since 9/11 were relatively few and far between, and were mostly recorded as audio and released to Arab media outlets and posted on jihadi Web sites. They represented a tiny fraction of the rapidly expanding stream of jihadi propaganda and were somewhat old-fashioned besides. Jihadi communications had undergone a revolution in the past decade: a large range of new genres and formats, such as video animations, documentaries, and “jihadi cool” rap, had become more popular; access had gotten much easier; far more of the material was translated into languages besides Arabic; and other jihadi audio-visual products had become more sophisticated.

Bin Laden’s relative absence in this mass of information suggests that his supposed inspirational role is misunderstood. True, jihadi sympathizers have often adopted as their own bin Laden’s simplistic slogans, such as “America is at war with Islam” and “America will not enjoy safety and security until we live it in Palestine.”

But bin Laden was never the jihadis’ primary reference point for ideological and religious thought or coherent strategy. The most cited ideologues in jihadi literature are not bin Laden on Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two, but Salafist scholars, such as the Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who are virtually unheard of in the West. Even more telling, the most popular items on jihadi forums are not bin Laden’s speeches but propaganda items from which bin Laden is absent or only briefly referred to.

The front-page banners that decorate most jihadi web forums are useful illustrations of bin Laden’s fading importance. Last week, one popular jihadi forum, Ansar AlJihad Network, ran nine such banners, most of which had been created by al-Sahab, al Qaeda’s most prestigious and authoritative media bureau. Three of the banners were educational lectures in Arabic and Urdu, and one was an audiotaped theological treatise by al-Maqdisi. The five others were video productions, containing footage of mujahideen training and operating in the field in Afghanistan, North Africa, and Iraq; detailed hagiographies of recent martyrs; interviews with rank-and-file jihadis; and excerpts from statements by several al Qaeda leaders.

In all of these films, each of which lasts more than half an hour, bin Laden had only a minute or so of total air time. Apparently, instead of endlessly rehashing bin Laden’s rhetoric, jihadi producers prefer to profile fellow jihadis, presumably because it is a better marketing strategy. More than bin Laden, recruits seem to be attracted to the adventurism and drama of faraway battlefields, and to the intense media attention that terrorism generates. Moreover, they are driven by grandiose beliefs that they are making history.

Bin Laden was not a cult leader with disciples who obeyed him blindly. When assessing his leadership role, one should bear in mind that al Qaeda was not only his organization - many felt ownership over it and its global jihad project. The movement places emphasis on ideological purity rather than charismatic leadership and, over the years, has fully adapted to the reality that jihadis at all levels are replaceable. Slogans such as “the path to victory is soaked with blood of the martyrs” are not empty words but are practiced every day, from the conflict zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and North Africa. Jihadi Web sites devote enormous attention to the virtues and joys of martyrdom and the coming paradise.

In this huge caravan of martyrs, bin Laden’s own death may well become an afterthought and pass into history, even if it enjoys much prominence on jihadi Web sites at the moment. Future attacks will most certainly be dedicated to bin Laden’s memory, and al Qaeda is already trying to use his martyrdom for recruitment purposes. However, to assume that his memory will play a decisive role in shaping al Qaeda strategy and thought for years to come confuses jihadis’ celebration of martyrdom with the worship of dead men. Unlike Shias, whose belief system includes a martyrology, Sunni jihadis have no official hierarchy for the dead, and they vehemently abhor the traditional Sufi practice of visiting the burial sites of holy men; this would be the sin of quburiyya, or grave worshiping. On the face of it, then, the idea that bin Laden’s grave would somehow have become a memorial for radicals had his body not been dropped in the sea seems almost ludicrous.

To be sure, bin Laden’s success in eluding capture and assassination for so many years earned him an aura of invincibility, which was certainly inspirational. But that aura is now broken, and the information he left in his compound and on his computers will inflict significant damage on al Qaeda. Still, the larger ideological movement that bin Laden left behind is by no means broken and will continue to thrive. The majority of jihadis are motivated by grievances such as Western military interventions and interference in the Islamic world, and they still have those grievances. Bin Laden’s death has done nothing to change terrorism’s underlying conditions.

As more information from documents in bin Laden’s hideout becomes available, the history of al Qaeda will have to be revised. The assumption that Osama bin Laden had been reduced to a symbolic figurehead devoid of operative relevance is false, and so is the claim that he remained the most important inspirational source for global jihadis. Bin Laden was respected and obeyed as emir, the commander in chief of al Qaeda, but now others will fill this role. The United States would be well advised not to rush into an accelerated campaign to kill remaining al Qaeda leaders. Instead, it is time to pay attention to the nuances of jihadi leadership, authority, and inspiration in order to undermine them.

For excellent long-form analyses of world events, check out Foreign Affairs.

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Topics: Osama bin Laden • Terrorism

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Truth

    Al Qaeda is an Arab movement not Islamic movement.They fight against US because west created Israel and installs puppet regimes in Arab countries in order to occupy there resources.etc etc.Fix Palestine Israel conflict and bring democracy to Arab countries.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      @ Truth: Not all members of al Qaeda are Arabs, yet they all believe in Islam. Al Qaeda is not a movement (an effort by its members to achieve a goal), but an organisation that pursues terrorism as a means to reach its end – to establish an islamic state.
      There is truth behind Bryjnar Lia's report. Bin Laden's death means no solace for us, as al Qaeda has been evolving all these years after 9/11. It is no longer a network with its strict top-down hierarchy, but with individual base elements in many parts of the world that are linked globally. No doubt, Bin Laden was a notable figure-head that still was a hype, yet many youngsters in the West, who share his hatred and have become home-grown terrorists, might find his approach old-fashioned and seek a new profile. I am afraid there could be a time, that these lone wolves and loose groups would compete against each other to seek attention and recognition.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • leeintulsa

      Al qaeda is a criminal organization, not any sort of 'movement'.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  2. Truth

    33,000 Pakistanis have died in this conflict which is not Pakistan's conflict.Pakistan and Afghanistan are actually a one nation.The biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan is pashtun.The population of Pakistani pashtuns is more than twice that of Afghanistan's pashtuns.Other ethnic groups are hazaras and bolach who's popultion in Pakistan is much larger than Afghanistan.Pakistan is fifth most populas country in world and a nuclear power.Population of Afghanistan is less than population of Pakistan's major city Karachi.Over obession with Afghanistan is destroying Pakistan.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • leeintulsa

      33000 have died and it's not pakistan's war, yet pakistan and afghanistan are one nation.. You're talking in circles..

      May 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • ep to

      33,000 – that's all? Geez, at that rate this war will never be over. They have to increase that rate to at least surpass the sum of the birth and immigration rates if they ever hope to achieve peace. Wars are resolved by attrition – kill the enemy faster than they are killing you, then sooner or later the other side will give up or be wiped out – either way you win and have peace. So, come on, pick up the pace ! !

      May 12, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  3. Truth

    Al Qaeda is an Arab movement.Taliban is a pashtun movement with only local agenda.Politcs drive there actions not Islam.In fact they openly do stuff which is not allowed in Islam.Western media wrongly mixes Islam with everything

    May 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • Jazzy

      Your like an idiot who keeps saying the same thing over and over....WAKE UP!! the world does not surround around Islam or Christianity
      Thats just what people want the world to surround around...they want people to recognize and give respect for what they believe OR ELSE!!!....That's what this whole fight is all about, for Muslims to feel "LEGIT" in the world, to cure doubts about there own religion.....I mean they are killing each other!!! while blaming america for having poisoned their minds....
      Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Pashtun..... to us it's all the only matters to them!!!......People know Mohammad was iliterate and it was passed down thru the ages...So Reality is, (you know one of those common sense things) that has been distorted because of a book......You can't make someone like you, respect you, recognize your religion, it has to be earned!!!....

      May 13, 2011 at 8:10 am | Reply
  4. Truth

    Pakistani tribal pashtun belt has rebelled against centre beacause there brethen in Afghanistan are dying and they are being showered with drones while the centre is a silent spectatcle and also because under US orders Musharraf ordered Pakistan army to enter this himalayan region which has never been governed by centre in last 2,000 years due to it's unique geography

    May 11, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  5. Truth

    People mix Islam with society customs.Girls education is compulsory in Islam,Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) said,"It is obligatory for every man and woman to get education"Working women are allowed in Islam.Prophet(PBUH) own wife used to earn her own living. etc etc

    May 11, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  6. Truth

    Those who hate Islam should study Islam.Islam is the only religion is the only religion that has not only survived the onslaught of science but has been strengthened by it.Day by day science discoveres things which have already been mentioned in Quran.Read this book,

    May 11, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • leeintulsa

      What should those of us who have total apathy towards Islam do?

      May 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • Growth

      Yes/ It grew in strength becuase every man has 20 children like Osama Laden. Why not? But how many are useful to humna being in the workd. Rates and cocroaches grow in volume. But there is no difference.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Reply
      • leeintulsa

        Catholics have alot of kids, too. Crazy...

        May 11, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  7. Rational

    I think the solution to this conflict is political rather than military.To kill Al Qaeda we should resolve Palestine Israel conflict and encourage actively democracy in Middle East.Furthermore,we should get out of Afghanisan and Pakistan as soon as possible before they too start embracing Al Qaeda philosophy.Already we have wasted $3 trillion in this stupid war.I am really worried about Obama expanding war to Pakistan.It's 4th most populos state in world and also a nuclear power.We certainly would want them to be on or side.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  8. RAJ

    There were few prominent Jehadi leaders like Bin Landen, Mullah Omar etc. There power survives and expands only if they are in direct contact with each others on regular basis, have easy money supply support, have easy communication channel, have easy excess to armaments. When power from top get diminished then there plan and scheme to damage enemy also get reduced. There were few Jehadi leaders and majority were there fanatic and ignorant followers who cannot operate without proper guidance and support from there mischieviious leaders. All these Jehadi leaders were hiding at different places with support of ISI in Pakistan for fear of there life. Continious drone attack policy did break there strength. Continious drone attack, intelligence vigilance on there communication, on there money and armament supply will break there cohesive ability to attack there enemy and in few more years after the death of there few main leaders, followers will join again in mainstream society.

    May 11, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
    • leeintulsa

      I don't think they'll ever disappear, they'll just become irrelevant.

      They'll be portrayed in movies and HBO series. Every once in a while, one or a few will get their name in the paper, and TIME magazine will have access to their command structure.

      As there is no 'mafia', there will be no 'al qaeda'.

      May 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  9. History

    I know this news will attract a lot of hindus with there hatred of Pakistan,so a brief history of hinduism is in order.Hinduisim was a religion created by occupying Aryans to inslave local Indians,the dravidians.As a result the aryans became the upper caste hindus while the poor,stupid locals became shudras(the untouchables) and other lower castes.It was because this unjust system that Pakistan was created as according to hinduism all non hindus are untouchables and impure(can't shake hands with them,can't talk with them,can't eat with them etc".Even today vast majority of India is same.

    May 13, 2011 at 7:16 am | Reply
  10. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    By waving their towels and shouting, "Death to America". That's what towel heads do best.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:17 am | Reply

      Too true.
      I wish other would understand

      November 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
      • BLA BLA BLA


        November 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  11. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Also by blowing up their own people. Towel heads are morons.

    May 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  12. Ala Verga

    Are you gay?

    May 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  13. andrew

    Muhhamad Omar should be arrested and brought to a Sharia court for the purposes of credibility. It is important to break Al Qaeda's itheoology by showing the world that it went against the tennants of Sharia law and common law.

    I believe their is anough evidence to prove that the people who formed the Taliban and lent support to Jihad in muslim countries breached Islamic law. Also their is plenty of evidence in the ruins of Iraq that show Al Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the lives of countless innocents and breached International law which the vast majority of muslims adhere to.

    May 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply

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