'A Time of Great Testing for Al-Qaida' Bin Laden's Death and the Future of Violent Jihad

He is best known for his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the rise of al-Qaida and the September 11 attacks. In a piece for SPIEGEL, Lawrence Wright argues that Osama bin Laden's death -- at a time when peaceful Arab youths are delivering what jihad has been unable to -- has drastically diminished al-Qaida's standing.
Von Lawrence Wright
Al-Qaida has lost its leader. It may also have lost its purpose.

Al-Qaida has lost its leader. It may also have lost its purpose.


I was at home when I learned the big news about the killing of Osama bin Laden. My brother-in-law had just called me, so I rushed to turn the TV on to see what had happened.

I felt a sense of relief and a feeling of closure. Although I recognize that al-Qaida has not died with its leader, I also know that al-Qaida could not die without first removing Osama bin Laden.

But now there was something different: The fact that we have experienced two historic moments at the same time -- the Arab revolution and the killing of bin Laden -- makes his death all the more powerful.

We are witnessing an extraordinary Arab revolution, and we are observing that al-Qaida has no influence on it, has nothing to say about the choices that Arabs are making. This has been a revelation not only to Westerners, but also to Arabs themselves -- and certainly to al-Qaida. Its message is that peaceful means of protest can bring about the change that years of jihad have failed to accomplish.


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Indeed, this is a turning point, something that changes the narrative of al-Qaida, which posits that real change can only come about through violent revolution. Now it has seen that real change can be achieved through nonviolent means.

Succession Troubles

If bin Laden had been captured four or five years ago, the context would have been completely different. It would have been about 2006, not too long after the Madrid bombing and the same year as the attacks in London. At the time, people were talking about al-Qaida being "on the march," and no one would have dared to talk about the end of jihadism.

I think that capturing bin Laden would have been a turning point no matter when it happened. But the fact that it happened right now -- at a moment when al-Qaida is under terrific pressure to demonstrate its relevance -- places the terror group in a much more difficult position.

For one, there is no obvious successor: Ayman al-Zawahiri who is nominally in charge now, is not a good manager. He ran his own terrorist organization in Egypt in the 1970s without success. He is a very polarizing leader. And, owing to ethnic rivalry within al-Qaida, it is also problematic that he is Egyptian.

Anwar al-Awlaki, from Yemen, is probably the most important voice inside al-Qaida today, and it might be that people will turn to him. He is part of the modern, Facebook al-Qaida. Indeed, some of my al-Qaida contacts are even on Facebook now, and it makes me always laugh that we are now Facebook "friends."

The Death of the Dinosaurs

We are witnessing dramatic change in the Arab world. Look at the evolution of Islamist movements like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood: They are more open-minded to democracy and modernism now because members of the younger generation are taking over. Indeed, there is a very powerful will among young Arabs to be part of the modern world. Al-Qaida does not stand for this modern world, and that is not a very good stance for a political movement today.

The overthrow of the autocrats, especially in Egypt, makes not only deposed President Hosni Mubarak, but also the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood look like dinosaurs. In fact, it was the youth movement inside the Muslim Brotherhood that finally decided to go out onto Tahrir Square in January.

Zawahiri and bin Laden are also part of the gerontocracy. There are new alliances now, and one of the very powerful ones is the youth movement in the Arab world. Al-Qaida is very far removed from that, from the aspirations of young people. What you see all over now is a modernist movement that has no interest in continuing the fundamentalist search for the past that al-Qaida champions.

A New Focus for al-Qaida's Energies

This tremendous turmoil in the Arab world will lead to good changes -- but there will also be anarchy. Egypt, Tunisia and Syria are stable enough to cope with the changes and to support democratic structures. But that is not the case in Libya or Yemen. The power structures in these countries are unclear. If I were in al-Qaida's shoes, I would want to go to these countries, where things will probably get even more chaotic. Indeed, if al-Qaida is looking for new areas to colonize, I would think that Libya has a natural calling for it. And al-Qaida already has deep roots in Yemen.

I am obviously not an al-Qaida strategist. But if I were, I would think about the impact of an attack, about the effect you could have on the world. I would then focus on the Gulf of Aden, the passageway between Yemen and Somalia that is the southern gateway to the Red Sea and the traffic route for oil and other goods. Europe depends on these traffic routes, and all of its oil comes through the Suez Canal. In fact, I suspect that al-Qaida's leaders are already concentrating their attention on these two countries, on this point of Western weakness.

Little Charm, Much Allure

Whoever these leaders might be, there will not be another Osama bin Laden among them. Though he was never particularly charismatic, he enjoyed an almost mythical status, which had something to do with the fact that he was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a wealthy Saudi who was willing to devote his wealth to what his followers perceived as a noble cause.

Likewise, although he was a very bloodthirsty figure, he still had this gentle image and these doll-like eyes, which were surprisingly calming and very inspiring for many jihadists. All of this allowed him to become a figure like Che Guevara, though without actually being able to stand up and make similar speeches. Still, he had allure, and I can't think of anybody who could replace him.

We will see what is in al-Qaida's playbook. I assume they've planned some kind of dramatic action to follow bin Laden's death. This is a time of great testing for them: If they cannot draw attention to themselves at this point in time, then it will be difficult for them to have any standing in the future. In that case, the train would be passing them by.

Certainty, Intelligence and Instincts

President Obama has taken a real big step. He finally did send in the Navy Seals -- the special operations forces President Bill Clinton referred to as "the ninjas" -- and it was probably the right answer. It would have been much easier for him to do the cruise missile thing. But the certainty and the evidence that they gathered will be extremely important. Granted, we don't have any idea what kind of intelligence value the documents and computers they seized in the compound might have. But this could turn out to be a second blow against the organization: If the movement really does have centers, this compound should have been one of them.

May 1 could also be a turning point for the Obama administration. It was a great risk. But if a president put so much on line and succeeds, as Obama did, people will start trusting his instincts. Nobody wants to have a president whose instincts are wrong.

An Unfollowed Script for the CIA

Nevertheless, I'm still not sure if this was the best way to kill bin Laden. Years ago, the CIA approached me and asked me to draft a scenario for what they should do if they ever caught bin Laden. At the time, I had just written a screenplay for a movie, and Hollywood simply does a much better job sometimes than the intelligence community does. I guess that's why they came to see me.

I told them that, as a journalist, I couldn't write a screenplay for the CIA. But I did say that I would write an op-ed piece  in the New York Times that would give them some suggestions. At the time, my recommendation was to always keep in mind that bin Laden is the most famous man in world and that he will be one of the most famous men in history. You will have to deal with his legacy, I wrote, and not only with the man. If you capture him, the first thing to do would be to not kill him because doing so would make him into a martyr -- and that is exactly what he wants. He wants his legacy to last.

Second, I wrote, do not take him to America -- or at least not yet. Instead, take him first to Kenya, where he set off a bomb in August 1998 killing 211 people and blinding another 150 with flying glass. Let him sit in a courtroom in Nairobi, and tell 150 blind Africans that this is the man who is responsible for what happened to them.

Then you can go to Tanzania, where he killed 11 people -- all of them Muslims -- on the same day. Al-Qaida justified the attack by arguing that, whatever the case, good Muslims would have been in a mosque on a Friday.

Then you could take him to America and let him answer why he killed 17 sailors in October 2000 on the USS Cole and 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

Third, do not stop there. You can still take him to a lot of places; you can take him to Madrid and Bali and Casablanca.

And then, fourth, take him to one last place: Take him home, back to Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of expat workers and Saudis have died at the hands of al-Qaida.

And, lastly, apply the only law he would respect: Shariah. Take him to a square in downtown Riyadh where the executer is a big man with a long sword. It is a Saudi tradition to walk out and ask the families of the victims to forgive. If they cannot, the executor will do his job. Bin Laden could be buried in an unmarked Wahhabi graveyard, I told them, and that is how you could deal with his legacy.

Last weekend, Obama's helpers did not follow my advice. The Saudis were reportedly offered the opportunity to have his body, but they didn't want it. So, he apparently ended up in the ocean.

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