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‘Al Qaeda eyes stormy horizon without bin Laden at the helm’

Osama Bin Laden’s death struck a harder blow at Al Qaeda than some acknowledge. As a political leader, he had managed the difficult transition from politician to icon. New recruits revered him as a hero. He symbolised a cause to which they committed allegiance. His appeal cut across geographic borders. He consciously forged an image of an Islamic warrior who emulated the journey of the Prophet Muhammad. It was an image he carefully manufactured over time.

He spun a narrative of a virtuous man who had set aside a rich lifestyle to lead a Jihad in humble surroundings, suffering the same hardships as the hardy companions who joined him on his dangerous journey. His image portrayed him holding an AK-47, wearing combat fatigues, and living off the land in a mountain cave. It was good ‘spin’.

The military significance of his experience in Afghanistan at Al-Ansur – the Lion’s den – in standing up to the Russians is oft debated, but like any shrewd politician, he played it for all it was worth. He saw himself as a latter-day Saladin set on a mission to eject infidels – notably Christians and Jews – from lands he deemed Islamic. His narrative suggested that his life story was part of a divine plan seamlessly unfolding around him, at the same time changing lives and making history. The classic footage of him appearing on a horse, galloping towards us in the frame bedecked in flowing robes, capitalised on the iconic image of an Islamic warrior prince. He presented himself, as well, as a poet. His peculiar verse, composed to celebrate the bombing of the USS Cole, became renowned and helped define him in a culture that reveres poetry and the imagery of dreams.

Bin Laden's reputation was largely built on his resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan

Bin Laden's reputation was largely built on his resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan

 

Acknowledging these details is vital because they demonstrate how carefully his image was crafted. Osama did not achieve iconic status overnight. It took many years, good luck, perseverance, and a decision by his organisation to spotlight him at centre-stage. Ayman al-Zawahiri apparently serves as the chief operating officer for Al Qaeda. With Bin Laden gone, it is highly likely he will lead the outfit.  Recent important communications have emanated from him. All things considered, Zawahiri may be energetic, but he lacks Osama’s charisma.

And there emerges a key lesson. It is very difficult to establish leaders who have charisma or to embellish their persona with the aura of it. The task requires time, achievements that fire imaginations, telling experiences, and the ability to embody and animate a set of ideas that give meaning to a political cause. The shoes of charismatic leaders are seldom filled. Projecting that appeal beyond national borders is especially difficult. Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, Tamil Tigers leader Vellupillai Prabakharan, FARC leader Paul Reyes and Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman all established themselves as parochial national icons, but their appeal was limited to their own countries. Hugo Chavez has worked tirelessly to this end. In fact, he is far more clever than his critics recognise and the $50 billion he’s given away has earned him good will among some political leaders. Still, the chavistas reside in Venezuela.

In modern times, only Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ruhalloh Khomeini have attained the status of ‘trans-national icon’. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. He became the standard bearer for secular nationalism and Pan Arabism. Khomeini hated America, but Shiites found inspiration in his long opposition to a hated Shah. An enormously resourceful politician, he seized power by forging a broad coalition and led a historic revolution in Iran that continues to reverberate beyond its borders. One must give them credit. Each put themselves on the line for what they believed. Benazir Bhutto was equally courageous. A brilliant, charismatic leader, esteemed in the West, she might well have matched their standing in the Islamic world, had assassination not cut short her career. She stood out as a unique voice for religious tolerance and democracy.

Bin Laden differed. He secluded himself at the rear while dispatching his followers to die as fodder for a death cult. His final hideout was a mean compound of rough stone. Those referring to it as a mansion only serve to elevate him beyond his worth – and demean the taste of Pakistanis. Killing him does not finish the global networks of violent extremists. That fight continues. Doubtless, Bin Laden supporters will, as the talented Waris Husain of the Middle East Institute has suggested, attempt to use his death as a sort of recruitment campaign.

But this is politics. US Special Forces did not finish Al Qaeda, but they did inflict a severe blow. Charisma in politicians is a rare quality. Their actual leadership, as much as their ideas, fuel their causes. Their deaths matter. The US achieved justice, took vengeance, and sent a powerful message that those who kill our citizens will pay. The terrorist pretended to the role of a warrior ready to battle to the death. But his end was ignominious. He was a loser.  Two words well suit his demise: good riddance.

As a US national defence consultant, James Farwell has advised the US Special Operations Command, US Strategic Command and the Department of Defense on information operations and strategic communication. He is the author of ‘The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability’, to be published this October by Potomac Books. He is a regular contributor to DefenceIQ.com.

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