Monday, 2 May 2011

The real question: can Al-Qaeda survive after bin Laden's death?

The news that Osama bin Laden has finally been killed has been greeted with celebration by many, but for others it will bring bittersweet relief. Leaving aside the immediate question as to how bin Laden managed to live in a mansion next to a military academy in a Pakistani town not far from Islamabad, and without garnering local suspicion, the major consideration must be to what extent the death of bin Laden will impact Al-Qaeda and global Islamist terrorism in the short and long term.

In attacking the Twin Trade Towers, Bin Laden’s idea was to ‘engineer a very spectacular attack’, and then embroil the United States in an intractable war of attrition; one that a conventional military superpower would find extremely difficult in the rugged Afghan hills. Bin Laden’s plan backfired; he failed to realize that the US would immediately react by wiping out Al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan. After US forces destroyed Al-Qaeda’s physical infrastructure, the group metamorphosed over time into a global collection of loosely connected ‘franchises’ held together by a shared radical Salafi-Jihadi[1] ideology. The emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others represents the the geographic manifestation of Al-Qaeda’s decentralization and globalization.

With the transformation of Al-Qaeda into a global affiliate ideology, the inevitable question arises as to the significance of the group’s leader; whether he occupied (and continues to occupy) a merely ideological leadership role, or whether his character was fundamental to Al-Qaeda’s continued success, and if the Salafi-jihadi ideology can survive without him.

An analysis of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) reveals that its decline was substantively the result of its leader’s character fault. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pursued an extremely violent sectarian strategy as Al-Qaeda’s representative in Iraq, and in the long term this proved to be a disastrous abandonment of bin Laden’s more pragmatic strategic aim of avoiding Muslim death causalities and targeting the US as the priority enemy. However, Zarqawi’s interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) prioritized the ‘near enemy’, that is, perceived apostate Islamic state actors which includes the authorities of almost every Middle Eastern country. That this major ideological rift could occur between the founder of Al-Qaeda and a major vanguardist leader and manifest itself on the strategic and tactical levels illustrates the weakness in the notion of the Al-Qaeda ‘franchise’ and the idea of a standard Al-Qaeda ideology. In the case of AQI, it has proven the global Al-Qaeda doctrine to be something of a loose cannon; susceptible to diverging dramatically from Al-Qaeda’s fundamental doctrines, and when these divergences prove unsuccessful, as in the case of AQI, it damages the credibility of Al-Qaeda as a credible, ‘legitimate’ organization[2] as Brian Fishman and Assaf Moghadam affirm[3].

In other words, it appears from recent historical case studies that bin Laden’s leadership role has not been crucial to the continued success of Al-Qaeda, and that affiliate groups operating under the Al-Qaeda name are susceptible to divergent ideologies that compromise the group’s original bin Laden-centred ideology-set. However, there remains a cohort of Islamic scholars who justify Salafist-jihadism and it is not to be expected that Al-Qaeda will disband now that bin Laden has been killed. There will no doubt be more after him willing to take the reins of the world’s most successful terrorist organization. However, as this article has shown, the ideological aims of Al-Qaeda are by no means monolithic, and the forthcoming leader will have to make significant decisions as to how the group will pursue its aims. With this in mind, the death of Osama bin Laden cannot fully be perceived fatal to the Al-Qaeda organization, although it is likely to exacerbate the phenomenon of disparate Al-Qaeda ideologies that has already been apparent in the decentralization and globalization of the organization.

[1] The term Jihad literally means ‘struggle’ in Arabic; the connection with armed Islamist groups and individuals is a neologism. Proponents of Jihad view violence as the legitimate and most viable means for achieving political and social change. Like Islamists, Jihadists share the notion that only Islamic teachings can resolve their dilemmas, yet unlike some Islamists, Jihadists reject modern political structures including democratic principles, and instead operate solely through a religious paradigm. They refer to selective literal interpretations of Islamic texts, and are intolerant of rival ideologies. Salafism is characterized by an adherence to a perceived pure Sunni Islamic doctrine as practiced by 7th century AD Muslims. It adopts a literal or puritanical interpretation of Islamic texts. Salafist groups may be political (Salafiyya Jihadiyya) or apolitical (Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya). A Salafi-Jihadist group combines violence with Salafist ideology with a political agenda of establishing Islamic Law (Shari’a) within an Islamic state (Caliphate). Al-Qaeda is currently the major Salafi-Jihadi group ( Ashour, The de-radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements, p2). Al-Qaeda perceives violent combat as a sacred act next in importance to the confession of Islamic faith, and refers to Jihad as an obligatory duty incumbent on each individual (fard ‘ayn). For an extensive overview of these terms, see for example Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, p1-22.

[2] The author of course means legitimate in the eyes of Jihadists and potential Jihadists.
[3] Fishman, Brian & Moghadam, Assaf (eds), ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery’, Harmony Project, Combating Terrorism Center (December 16, 2010) available at <>, p97


  1. there is nothing called qaida
    it's an American created story to steal the oil

  2. osama bin laden is one of the greatest terrorist he's a hero