Why jihadism will not die with bin Laden

By Jason Burke, May 12, 2011
Demonstrators in Gaza protest over the killing of bin Laden

Demonstrators in Gaza protest over the killing of bin Laden

We are now nearly two weeks into the post-bin Laden era of Islamic militancy. It is too early to know for certain what form this new phase will take. But we can already make an educated guess.

The death of bin Laden affects the three main elements - the hardcore leadership, the various affiliated groups and the ideology - that make up the al Qaida phenomenon.

The hardcore leadership comprised bin Laden and his Egyptian associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, plus a few dozen others. Zawahiri is still alive but is irascible, stubborn, 59 years old and far from popular among his fellow militants. He has none of the charisma of bin Laden and can never be the unifying inspirational figure that bin Laden was to his followers.

Younger contenders for the top spot lack profile and experience. But perhaps al Qaida can do without a single leader. Perhaps a different organisational structure can be put in place. What is certain is that the central leadership of al Qaida has been splintering steadily in recent years. It is now likely to definitively fracture.

Then there are the main regional groups or "affiliates": al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (largely the Yemen), al Qaida in the Maghreb (largely Algeria) and al Qaida in Iraq. For some time, these have largely been independent of the main leadership. Each is rooted in specific local factors and history. Their alliance with al Qaida was usually nominal in any case. It is now likely to simply drift into obsolescence.

Violent Islamism is on back foot, but this may be temporary

Then, of course, there is the ideology, the third and most important part of the al Qaida phenomenon. Here the situation is less clear. Bin Laden's greatest success was to make his particular interpretation of radical Islamism globally known. There were other strands of militant thinking and strategy around in the late 1990s but 20 years of "propaganda by deed" made bin Laden's the dominant one. There was a moment when it looked genuinely capable of attracting a very significant number of followers, and a social movement remains. There is a sub-culture of "jihadism" which is both dangerous and unsavoury. But in recent years, support for bin Laden's ideas, his methods and his project declined dramatically throughout the Middle East and the broader Islamic world, as the events of the Arab Spring have shown.

Now such ideas are marginal and, it is unlikely, particularly given the manner of his passing, that those ideas will suddenly surge back in popularity.

The lack of a central focus makes a difference to "wannabee" militants. Running the Luton Mujahideen is not the same as being head of the Luton branch of bin Laden's organisation. Bin Laden's death fundamentally alters the environment for recruitment - as well, of course, for fundraising and propaganda.

So, where does this leave us?

First, although violent Islamism
may be on the back foot, this may only be temporary. The coming years are likely to see continuing low-level violence and threats shifting around
the periphery of the Islamic and Islamist world, depending on local circumstances and the emergence of new leaders.

Meanwhile, groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah are likely to feel more comfortable with terrorist tactics now that bin Laden is gone. Suicide bombing, for example, will not be inevitably, if wrongly, associated exclusively with the mastermind of 9/11 and al Qaida and may thus regain some legitimacy after losing support in many parts of the Middle East in recent years.

Equally, although Hamas have fiercely repressed any groups linked to or loyal to al Qaida in recent years, its condemnation of bin Laden's killing reveals a marked pragmatism on their part. Now that his views are no longer a political threat to Hamas on their home ground, they can be appropriated and exploited.

Beyond Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood more generally saw, rightly, the violent Salafis of al Qaida as a rival and an enemy. The Brotherhood will thus be strengthened by bin Laden's death. Mainstream Islamism is once more - as it was in the 1970s - the most obvious discourse of dissent in the Middle East. The Arab Spring, by focusing attention on the young, tech-savvy urban middle classes, has disguised the deep religiosity and conservatism of significant numbers of people in the Islamic world, particularly in rural areas or small towns.

It is they who may well determine the political direction of much of the Middle East in the coming years and the expectations raised by the events of recent months are likely to be disappointed to some degree.

Finally, many elements of the extremist worldview have been normalised across the Islamic world. In Pakistan for example, Islamist parties do poorly in formal politics but exert massive informal influence.

Antisemitism is an integral part of the Islamist worldview and can therefore be expected, like the profound anti-Americanism, to remain at high levels for the foreseeable future. Rampant conspiracy theories are both a symptom and a cause of this.

Jason Burke is the Guardian's south Asia correspondent and author of 'Al Qaida: Casting a Shadow of Terror' and 'On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World'

Last updated: 3:33pm, May 12 2011