So the world’s most wanted man was finally brought down not in a rugged mountain fastness but in a respectable middle-class neighbourhood in a sleepy Pakistani hill town, whose mid 19th-century colonial founders had deliberately imitated Britain’s home counties. If more proof were needed of the al-Qaeda leader’s lustre, the huge villa in which he had sought shelter in Abbottabad, just happened to be close to Pakistan’s leading cadet college and a well-known bazaar.
For three decades Osama bin Laden has gripped the imagination of Muslims across the world, and been the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. When he arrived in Peshawar in the early 1980s, with bulldozers and his family’s millions from the construction industry to build cave shelters for the Afghan Mujahideen, nobody could suspect that the thin, shy, but mesmerising Saudi could change the world. But he did.
To kill nearly 3,000 people in a single blow on September 11 2001, as his followers did, and then to taunt the US to come after him took a messianic madness. That became the al-Qaeda motto: “We love death more than we love life.’’ His appeal in radical circles only grew as it seemed all the armies in the world could not counter such a war.
Evading for a decade US special forces, intelligence and drones set another kind of record in jihadist circles. Jihadists believed now more than ever that their leader was blessed and kept safe by God.
Even as al-Qaeda collapsed as a structured organisation after the overthrow of the Taliban, and even as bin Laden ceased to run operations or give orders, al-Qaeda’s influence spread – to Iraq, north Africa, Europe and even the US where a handful of Muslims have tried the path of martyrdom. But there was no al-Qaeda movement any longer, no coherent organisation nor even a philosophy that developed. Instead, what spread after 9/11 was the idea of death and martyrdom and taking as many unbelievers with you as possible.
Al-Qaeda became a diffuse series of small bands, even if the threat remained – and indeed remains – as just one man with a bomb in Times Square could recreate the panic and potentially the bloodbath of 9/11. While bin Laden stopped being a leader a long time ago, for many he was still a symbol of martyrdom and mayhem. No one can compare to him in the spread of Muslim history.
The chaos that he created in the Islamic world divided Muslims into extremist and moderate – something no Muslim had done before on such a scale. He further divided the faith, labelling millions of devout Muslims as non-believers because they did not follow the reductionism of Islamic thought to the single idea of jihad. Yet the terror his radical philosophy evoked among autocratic Muslim rulers meant that hardly any had the courage to stand up to him.
In fact, it is young people at the heart of the Arab revolt who are rebelling not for jihad but for freedom and democracy. We should not forget that bin Laden’s failure to win support in the Arab world, despite 30 years of trying, has led to the near total rejection of the global jihadist idea by his fellow Muslims.
Nevertheless his legacy will overshadow the Muslim world for a generation. We will hear immediately from his followers, who in coming days will carry out revenge attacks around the world. In particular expect suicide attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. Second, the jihad he espoused will not disappear, for it has taken root in far too many fringe groups. Its political ambitions have been curtailed, but at a wider level it is breeding intolerance in some Muslim societies against Christians, Jews and other minority religious groups, and even beliefs within Islam such as the Sufis.
And yet his death offers huge opportunities across the globe. President Barack Obama needs to follow up on his promises in Cairo two years ago when he pledged to build bridges to the Muslim world.
The most important act for the Americans is to push for a fair and equitable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, even as the west must redefine itself as the open-hearted friend of the new Arab societies emerging from the rubble of dictatorship. Also, bin Laden’s death will make it easier for peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government and the Americans. The Taliban do not owe al-Qaeda anything now bin Laden is dead.
Al-Qaeda continued funding and training the Taliban after their collapse in 2001. But the older generation of Taliban leaders had long ago become fed up with the arrogance of Arab jihadists. The Taliban want to return home to their country free of foreigners including Americans but they don’t want, for example, to bomb supermarkets or embassies in western capitals. It is worth noting that no Afghan Talib has been involved in global jihad.
Renouncing their links with al-Qaeda and negotiating as Afghans rather than as members of an international jihad has just become much easier for the Taliban. Nato and Afghanistan’s neighbours have swiftly to take military and political measures that will help President Hamid Karzai negotiate with the Taliban to end 33 years of war.
Pakistan too, which has become a breeding ground for extremism and intolerance, has to seize on this as an opportunity for a new direction. The location of bin Laden’s lair underlines the faultlines running through the security and intelligence forces. He was a hero to some Pakistanis because he defied the west and because the country is desperately short of heroes. Perhaps Pakistan’s leaders can now have the courage to turn around the mythology and show what bin Laden really was – a political leech who introduced suicide bombing, helped to create the Pakistani Taliban and promoted intolerance in a country that was at relative peace with itself until he appeared on the scene.
The colonial conquests of Muslim societies by the west were followed by freedom struggles and, in turn, stagnation and repression. Bin Laden rose to prominence as Muslims were looking for a way out and he sought to take us back many centuries.
Now Muslims have to find a way out of this extremist cul de sac. Extremism’s heroes are dead or dying and its ideology bankrupt. But the leaders of Muslim civil society have now to give it a bold final push into the margins, so that once again as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, said in 1947 – and as Arab youth are bravely urging – we can go to mosques and temples and churches and worship and live freely. This is a watershed moment. The question is can the west and the Muslim world grasp it?
The writer is author of Descent into Chaos and The Taliban
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