1 May 2011
Dr Maha Azzam
Former Chatham House Expert


The killing of Osama bin Laden removes one of the most potent symbols of non-state terrorism in the modern era.

Whether al-Qaeda's real strength was exaggerated by the United States and its allies or not, its defeat became the focus of US policy in Afghanistan and to some extent in Iraq in retaliation for 9/11 and gave rise to an era where the 'War on Terror' became the focus for security services the world over. Al-Qaeda's declared war on the US and its allies (executed through terrorist attacks among other places, in Bali, Madrid, London, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as in Iraq) cost the lives of thousands, including Muslims, and failed to win hearts and minds in the Muslim street at large.

Al-Qaeda on the decline

Al-Qaeda as an organization had been decimated and greatly weakened by the consistent onslaught by US counter terrorism efforts. Its lieutenants were captured or killed; its leadership was forced to live in hiding and its operations were severely disrupted.

However, for almost ten years bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al- Zawahri, managed to defy capture, and thus symbolically at least, appear undefeated. Moreover, the crippling of al-Qaeda came at a price; it challenged the protection of civil liberties in democracies, resulted in rendition, involvement in possible torture by democratic governments and the arbitrary imprisonment system at Guantanamo. At the same time it allowed dictators in the Middle East to clamp down further against opposition movements, including moderate Islamist movements, in the name of security.

In the Arab world, al-Qaeda was already weakened. It had spectacularly failed to win hearts and minds on a popular scale (although it did attract fringe elements). Moreover, its entire ideology and appeal were greatly undermined by changes on the ground with the Arab Spring heralding a deep popular mobilization for fundamental political change without the resort to terrorism or violence. Indeed, despite a strong Egyptian connection via Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda seemed to be struggling to keep up with the wave of change that engulfed Egypt earlier this year. The pro-democracy protests in the Arab world have challenged those in power far more than any resort to terrorism.

A victory for the US

Osama bin Laden challenged the invincibility of the US. He managed to target the US homeland and threaten its interests at a time when the US was extremely unpopular in the Muslim world because of the Gulf war, and because of its unwavering support for the dictators in the region and for Israel.

The killing of bin Laden is likely to be seen as a particular victory for the Obama administration, under whose watch this long awaited closure for the wound of 9/11 was delivered to the American people. In many ways, although the 'War on Terror' was presented as a global campaign, it was directed primarily by the US, where public sentiment sought redress for the wounds of 9/11 (both on a personal level for victims' families and on a patriotic level for the perceived wound to national pride). The fight spilled over into Europe, where fear of terrorism emerging from al-Qaeda supporters created tensions with and among Muslim communities in its midst.

In the short term the security threat is heightened, with likely revenge attacks by groups loosely associated with al-Qaeda either in Western countries, or more likely in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There may even be a slight revival in bin Laden's popularity, if only because of the knee jerk reaction against whatever the US does among a small part of the population in the Muslim world.

The impact in Afghanistan and Pakistan

In Afghanistan, bin Laden's death is unlikely to change the situation much. The Taliban are engaged in what they perceive as a time-honoured Afghani war against foreign occupation, which will continue to progress according to its own dynamic. If anything the pressure will increase on the US and its allies to leave quickly. In Pakistan, there are likely to be awkward questions about why he managed to live in an affluent suburb next to a military college without apparently being spotted by the intelligence services there. The question now is whether his demise will end the unpopular US drone attacks.

In many ways, bin Laden's death comes at a time when he had become increasingly sidelined in the wider political arena in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he leaves a legacy of a loose network of fringe radicals intent on using terrorism with no objective other than to terrorize simply as a way of saying that they are there and that they object to what they see in the wider political arena. His followers may never be able to galvanize the Arab or Muslim street in a revolution against the pro-western regimes in the region, as he must have hoped and believed at the start of his campaign. Indeed, the revolution, when it did come in the Middle East, chose non-violence.