It must have been the moment that Osama bin Laden had long expected. The point at which the intelligence trail eventually led US special forces, literally, to his front door. He has certainly had plenty of time to ponder his future. But in the decade that he had been the world’s most wanted man, how often had he objectively reviewed the success of his bloody campaign to rid the Islamic world not just of western influence but of any influence other than his own brand of extreme jihad?
Hardly at all, I suspect. Self doubt and sober reflection were unlikely to have figured prominently in bin Laden’s life. Indeed, he probably died as convinced as ever that his own perverse ideology would prevail even though the remaining potency of the al-Qaida brand had long since been franchised out to surrogate groups in Yemen, the Maghreb and elsewhere. His own influence and that of the original central command of the movement he helped found had diminished markedly over the years and as an agent of dramatic change his power had waned.
In the short-term, there will be a need for extra vigilance to guard against any potential violent backlash. And we are helping our clients to check that their security measures are adequate for what may be a period of heightened threat from die-hard bin Laden loyalists. This risk will be eased if western reaction is tempered with humility, an avoidance of triumphalism and a recognition that the Arab and Islamic world has moved on dramatically since the world’s largest manhunt was launched shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
For despite his still iconic status, bin Laden died an anachronism. The wave of change that has rolled across the Arab world this spring owes nothing to al-Qaida’s plans to restore a centuries old caliphate to the Middle East. In each country, the causes have been different. But there have been common threads of popular, secular frustration with corruption, cronyism, repression and economic incompetence. Religion has been a noticeably absent factor in the unrest. It is the Facebook not the Tora Bora generation that has stepped forward to challenge the authority of regimes right across the region.
Bin Laden’s death may well be used to accelerate the US and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, to herald the beginning of the end of America’s entanglement in that country. That is inevitable and no doubt will be politically convenient in a pre-election year ahead of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. But the symbolism surrounding his death goes further than Afghanistan.
The problems of religious alienation, poor education and poverty that were the root causes of al-Qaida’s support and provided the organisation, in the eyes of some, with legitimacy remain largely unresolved. The heightened sense of raised expectations triggered by the Arab Spring only intensifies the need for concerted action to tackle these problems. Failure to do so risks opening the door for the next generation of violent radicals to exploit other people’s suffering for their own ends. Doing business across this part of the world requires a special sensitivity to how finely balanced the future is in many of these countries. And history clearly demonstrates how thwarted expectations are the breeding grounds for extremism.
The tragedy would be if the main beneficiary of the wave of protests that has swept across North Africa and the Middle-East over the last few weeks turned out to be the political philosophy of bin Laden rather than the people who have taken to the streets from Tripoli to Damascus. In most countries – notably Iraq – al-Qaida has failed to take root. In others it is on the wane and in only a few does it remain a virulent force. With bin Laden’s death there is a renewed imperative to ensure that remains the case.