After Osama: some initial and incomplete responses to the death of bin Laden and the future of the Global War on Terror

Dr Keith Spence, University of Leicester

The impact of the assassination on the image and identity of Al-Qaeda

The attack by US Special Forces in Abbottabad on Sunday May 1st 2011 was unquestionably a successful one, efficiently achieving its mission objective (the option of capturing bin Laden is not one to be taken unduly seriously), but the physical removal of bin Laden from the global scene inevitably also prompted the reproduction of his portrait on screens and front pages across the world to an extent not seen since 9/11 itself. Paradoxically, the assassination returns to prominence an undeniably infamous but increasingly marginal and operationally inactive symbol of and figurehead for the al-Qaeda movement.

This reinscription of bin Laden’s image will involve adjustments of representation, most particularly away from the symbolism of evasion and resistance and towards that of martyrdom and sacrifice. These shifts, however, will not necessarily deprive al-Qaeda as an organisation of its focal point in terms of identity and may, for a time at least, even make that identity a more attractive one for those vulnerable to its appeal.

The impact on the ‘Global War on Terror’

Areas of uncertainty in the Middle East and in North Africa are unchanged by the death of bin Laden, and the subsequent pledge by President Obama ‘go after Al Qaeda’ in areas such as Yemen and Algeria (perhaps aided by intelligence materials supposedly recovered in the raid on Sunday night) suggests a continuation, and perhaps a short-term intensification, of the ‘Global war on terror’, but not a significant change or rethink. In particular, already ambitious plans to begin withdrawing ground forces from Afghanistan later this year are unlikely to be accelerated and may well be pushed back if a backlash of additional violence to that already expected over the coming months materialises in the southern provinces.

More complicated still, the discovery of bin Laden in a luxurious villa just a short walk from Pakistan’s leading military academy reconfirmed that country’s status as a central part of the current problem in terms of providing an environment conducive to the production and sheltering of terrorists. It is also inescapably true that Pakistan is amongst the heaviest victims of terrorism in the 21st century, and in greatest need of help and support. Finding ways to effectively provide that support, whilst curtailing elements within Pakistan’s military, intelligence and political establishments that are sympathetic to movements including, but not limited to, Taliban groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is, and will continue to be, extremely taxing. The campaign is not referred to as ’the long war’ without reason, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan territories may well provide its most enduring front.

The impact on America and the West

Osama bin Laden was a key factor in the election to a second term in 2004 of President G.W. Bush, and in death seems likely to fulfil the same function for President Obama in 2012. The success of the mission to Abbotabad provides Obama, only recently castigated by right-wing critics as weak and indecisive, with a cast iron security myth/narrative that all but guarantees him second term in office. Before Sunday this was far from certain, especially if the Republican Party could manage, in the course of their primary process, to contrive a plausible candidate over the next few months. The nascent political ambitions of Donald Trump, in particular, have been dealt a potentially terminal blow – for which we can all be truly thankful.

In terms of ‘the West’ we’ve already heard calls for heightened awareness & concerns about ‘reprisal attacks’, but these are probably overblown and in a very short period of time normal service will be resumed. The legislation, institutions and infrastructures of securitisation and counter-terrorism are now firmly embedded on a global scale. The DHS, TSA and their equivalents may have to fight a little harder for additional resources in years to come, but are by no means going to disappear without a fight.

One further impact concerns the reconsideration of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Early spinning – ironically, using information circulated by WikiLeaks – on the Abbottabad raid has suggested that crucial information was provided by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and/or at the (not so) secret ‘black sites’ maintained as a part of the war on terror. President Obama’s first executive action upon entering office was to pledge that Guantanamo would be closed within 12 months, and to declare that techniques such as waterboarding were unequivocally unconstitutional. It may be considered an irony if it is indeed the case that intelligence obtained in this manner did significantly contribute to the operation against bin Laden. Such an irony should not, however, be mistaken for a justification of such acts on legal, moral or utilitarian grounds, or be used to excuse or revive them.

The impact on the ‘Muslim world’

‘Muslim world’ is not, in general, not a helpful construction (and neither of course is ‘the West’), and it seems, initially at least, unlikely that death of Osama will significantly impact upon the course of events collected as ‘Arab spring’ – which are connected by communication and information flows, and by a common exhausted resistance to decades of tyranny, corruption, and incompetence, but are also local and particular in character.

Perceptions of external actors in Libya, and of intervention and non-intervention in Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere, by both ‘Western’ and ‘regional’ actors, are unquestionably more important than Osama bin Laden, either alive or dead.

Pending rapprochement between Hamas and al-Fatah in Gaza and West Bank has also been overshadowed by the assassination of bin Laden, but is potentially highly significant with regard to the question of Palestine. A unitary Palestinian negotiating partner that incorporates Hamas would, without doubt, prove diplomatically testing for the United States, but just might in turn present the Obama administration with an opportunity to relaunch foreign policy balloons with which the Presidency launched. These include the posting as envoys of George Mitchell and the late Richard Holbrooke, the ‘open hand’ section of the inaugural speech, and the subsequent address at Cairo University that was derided and ignored in 2009, but which could well in time receive reconsideration as a signpost on the road to 2011 and the ‘Arab Spring.’

With regard to that uprising, media commentators are spinning a myth that the apparent absence of explicit Political Islamism or al-Qaeda support from the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrates a waning or weakening of support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That is – at best – speculative wish-fulfilment, and the long-term outcomes of regime change in Egypt & elsewhere are far from predictable.

Security issues in a post Osama world

The myriad groups that adopt and adapt the name of al-Qaeda are not and never were a unity. Following the assassination they may splinter in their adoption of the brand, coalesce around the image of OBL as martyr, or even converge around a new dominating figure. This last option is the least likely. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the requisite lacks charisma, whilst Anwar al-Awlaki, the next most likely candidate, offers fluent YouTube diatribes in English but lacks the authenticity that a leader (of any group, be it terrorist or otherwise) requires.

After the furore surrounding the death of bin Laden subsides – a period more likely to last for months rather than years – patterns of terrorist disruption with which we are now familiar will likely resume. With Europe and the US for the most part fairly effectively ‘hardened’ against attack, such events are more likely to take place, as we saw last week, in places like Morocco, and of course in Pakistan, which as suggested is perhaps the most critical site and potential point of origin for future terrorist threats.

The main security issues in a ‘post Osama world’, are the same as those that preceded his death: hopefully his removal will help a measure of perspective to be achieved, and create a space within which some of the negative consequences of the post-9/11 invasions might begin to be unravelled. This, however, is likely to be at best a generational process, and given the propensity to overreact and the uncertainties of the ‘Arab spring’ is one that is unlikely to proceed smoothly.

Terrorism is effective because the ‘gut politics’ of fear and emotion too often trumps that of reason and clarity, obscuring fundamental issues concerning water security, energy security, economical, environmental & human security in general that are the most pressing issues in a post-Obama world, just as they were before September 11, 2001. An optimistic prediction is that ‘after bin Laden’ this reality might be recognised and considered in a more coherent fashion than has been the case in the post 9/11 era. That suggestion is, however, one made more in hope than expectation.

Dr Keith Spence is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester. His background is in political and social theory and his research interests include the sociology of risk, security and terrorism; contemporary social and political theory; the philosophy and methodology of the social sciences. His most recent publications are:

Spence, K. (2010) ‘Framing Suicide Terrorism: Perceptions and Representations’ in U. Ersen (ed) Strategies to Counter the Terrorist Threat, IOS Press: Amsterdam (forthcoming).

Spence, K. (2010) ‘National, Homeland and Human Security: Conceptual Development, Globalization and Risk’ in J Charvat (ed) Homeland Security Organization and Defence Against Terrorism, IOS Press: Amsterdam (forthcoming).

One Comment

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 21/05/2011 at 08:58 | Permalink

    Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces because there was insufficient evidence to bring him to trial with any chance of a successful conviction. Was he the wrong enemy?

    The USA has history of attacking the wrong “enemy” for the wrong reasons and supporting the wrong “friends” for the wrong reasons. Why does it not know where its true interests lie. Many nations act foolishly from time to time, not least our own but to have such a long history of perverse and sometimes venal policies is extraordinary.

    One reason may be the lack of a colonial past. Although professing antipathy to colonialism, America hs the colonialist desire to control natural resources in order to control their price. The American people delude themselves that they support free Market capitalism whilst supporting both socialist and monopolist actions when it serves the purpose of industry and commerce.

    In it’s heart of hearts it wants to rule the world but in its rhetoric it believes in freedom and democracy for all. Americans are good people want to and do do good in the world but the believe that bad actions can have a good purpose. This false belief has been exported to Britain whose colonial past should have taught better. NATO nations, who owe many obligations for past support, pay lip service to US flawed decisions. From this difficult alliance the concept and the image of “the west” is formed.

    By refusing to purchase raw materials on the free market the US has condemned the Congo to poverty and cruel dictatorship. The policy was repeated in South America and the middle east. In south east Asia they adopted the 19th century British colonial policy of denying territory to your commercial rivals under the banner of free market capitalism. Now, Afghanistan. The British invaded in the 1840s to deny access to Russia and were slaughtered. They invaded again in the 1870s an held the country for 20 years under their puppet king. The Russians invaded in the 1970s and were ejected with huge loss of life. How could even the most powerful nation on Earth delude itself that invading Afghanistan could ever be a sane reaction to terrorism by Saudi and Yemeni citizens.

    Will the USA be willing or capable of abandoning it’s delusions, it’s failed 19th century colonialism, and embrace the free market it purports to admire? Not any time soon and the good people of America will continue to create poverty which they will attempt to resolve through philanthropy rather than free market capitalism.


    LXmoderator Reply:

    Very interesting reponse, Chris. Thank you. Would anyone like to come back on the points Chris makes? “Was he the wrong enemy?” To what degree does America’s colonial past, or lack thereof, continue to influence foreign policy and economic strategy?


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