Friday, 6 May 2011

What Comes After Osama Bin Laden?

The cheers and celebrations that rang out in the US at the news of Osama Bin Laden's assassination by US Navy seals is understandible. A whole new generation of youngsters have lived with the face of Osama Bin Laden as the mortal enemy of american society,  hidden away in the everlurking shadows, waiting to pounce upon the ever-suspicious populace the moment they allow themselves to drop their guards.  I am sure that whenever mortal enemies of one side are eliminated, some level of glass-clinking and congratulation occurs on the other side. I am sure when Adolf Hitler died there were many celebrations across the world because it signalled that the war was nearing its end. Yet the uproarious celebration of death at the hands of other human beings by whatever means tends to be distasteful in some measure.

And moreover, in this case it is premature. It is not by any means the end to Osama Bin Laden, but is another chapter that will be taken up in the narratives that compose the mythology of Osama Bin Laden. His followers and admirers will view his death at the hands of American navy seal soldiers as an assassination, and as an unfair execution of justice. Moreover, the question of what comes after Osama Bin Laden is not straightforward by any means. Revenge killing tends to provoke an unending dance of death between enemies, and the cycles of conflict are only perpetuated through revenge. After all, it is not an act of peace, but an act of hatred. Where there is no resolution, the cycles of violence begatting violence don't find an end. Already, there are early indications that Osama Bin Laden was unarmed when killed so many believe that justice was not served with his killing - and the conspiracy mill has swung into action across the world.  

I am no expert in Al Qaeda but it is clear that such a complex organisational structure holds many potentialities. Yet due to the distributed and diverse nature of Al Qaeda's many subsidiary regional and national bodies across the world, what Al Qaeda will become in the future and what modes of operation it may adopt is not clear. In addition, the Arab Spring, constituted of multiple revolutions and widespread civil revolts with the purpose of bringing about revolution of the state, will also present challenges to the vision espoused by Al Qaeda. That is, the restoration of the islamic caliphate and the global rule of islamic law may not be consistent with the gains that the revolutions of the Arab Spring may bring to the citizens in terms of civil liberties and human rights for groups and individuals. Al Qaeda may end up being squeezed from both sides, so to speak, and the need for new strategies and innovations will increase significantly, as they are forced to adapt to the new and perhaps quick-changing sociological terrain of the islamic world in the 21st Century.

How Al Qaeda reacts to this quick changing terrain may actually be aided by the departure of Osama Bin Laden in that it will have more freedom to reconfigure it's modes of operation and to find different ways to appeal to potential members with a bit more autonomy as a new era emerges post Osama Bin Laden. Even if his role in Al Qaeda was now mainly symbolic, his mere presence meant that Al Qaeda could not explore radically different positions from the values he set through his example. The mythology of Osama Bin Laden will remain and grow into the future along various paths and will spawn diverse narratives, yet Al Qaeda itself will have more freedom to reconfigure its modes of operation and attraction.

And what modes of operation and attraction might it be drawn to. It is difficult to say because the Arab Spring has not yet had sufficient time to spawn new norms that govern the reality of everyday life in the Middle East. It is still caught up in a period of transition. And my guess is that Al Qaeda will also undergoe a transition of its own in reaction to these changes. I am unsure exactly what the nature of the transition will be, but I picture decentralised developments in modes of operation and attraction that will then become increasingly shared and tested in different tactical, operational and strategic contexts, and then distilled into a set of principles that dictate what the modes of operation and attracting new members may be. A power transition that parallels these developments might also be in the making.

To hazard a guess at what might emerge, I fear that Al Qaeda will become increasingly radicalised within different regions, nationalities and socio-cultural contexts across the world, and that local leaders may gain more autonomy through the perception of a leadership vacuum emerging out of what has always been a tenuous central command structure. Al Qaeda was designed to have a loosely evolving, spontaneous, distributed structure composed of cell-groups within local, national or regional Al Qaeda aligned islamic radical groups. It is not to be thought of as just a terrorist group, it is also a vast intelligence network of disparate groups and elements - by design, it is a flexible structure that allows for change. If memory serves me correctly Osama Bin Laden himself called for action from muslims whether or not they were members of Al Qaeda. This built-in capacity for bottom up autonomy means that Al Qaeda, as a broad ideological integrator for these disparate groups and elements may begin to change with the ideological positions that emerge and that result in different modes of operation being put into play. 

It is concievable that some leaders, with more power and popularity on their side, may make attempts to reconfigure the central command for greater autonomy or may actually seek to take the central command under the guise of 'saving the organisation', and introduce changes that they think are necessary for Al Qaeda to continue to grow its influence. If these groups are more radical then more dangerous and desperate modes of operation (and attraction) may emerge. If the on-the-ground reality is that islamic modernisation significantly changes the way in which muslims view themselves and each other and tolerance and diversity return to the broader social framework of islamic societies across the world, then Al Qaeda may find itself without significant candidates for its ranks. 

Yet the flexible organisational structure of Al Qaeda can both work in its favour or against it. It may fragment, or it may adapt. Either way may bring increased or decreased danger. A more fragmented Al Qaeda may take actions in disconnected and disparate ways, with only local control over decision-making, while a more coordinated and integrated Al Qaeda may operate at ever greater skills, mobilising greater numbers of people and funding to commit large-scale acts of terror. The question over the threat of nuclear terrorism remains open. Both avenues offer up room for nuclear adventurism that may escalate the current global crisis of terror to new levels of urgency and devastation. The consequences for the global economy, sociology and order will be dire under these circumstances.

Ultimately, increased radicalism is the main threat to the future, not just within Al Qaeda, but outside of it too. Guantanomo Bay is one such example of radical and illegal means being employed to fight the war against terror. More aptly, it is a strategy to fight terror with terror, and in my view, ony radicalises both sides of the conflict to increased levels. Moral authority is important to maintain when facing a radical enemy. Radicalism cannot be defeated with more radicalism. It can only be defeated by moderation, tolerance and principled thought and action. If the US continues down the path of acting in violation of the Geneva convention on war, it only fuels and justifies radicalism on the other side. Illegal violations of sovereignty, the use of torture and deadly force, and slaking the thirst for revenge above seeking justice; all stand as examples of injustice that culminate to provide the fodder for radical arguments against the legitimacy of the  US government and its activities in various parts of the world; namely, Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, US policy over the issue of Palestine, and occupations in Arab and/or Muslim countries in general, raise the ire of radicals, or potential radicals even further.

Al Qaeda may well be caught between the US and the Arab Spring, as the song goes, 'the devil and the deep blue sea', that is; between a towering imperial power with vast resources and limited morality and ethical highground, and the abyss of the constant changing waters of the Arab Spring which threatens to bring about an ocean of plurality within the everyday lives and governance of Arabs in Arab countries.

Al Qaeda will have to adapt, or shrink from the pressures exerted by both sides. It's only real weapon will be the ability to convince those within the changing abyss of the evil of its enemy. The more blatant US violations of human rights, sovereign rights and economic rights prove to be in the future, the more they contribute to the actualisation of potential radicals. It isn't wise to adopt a policy of engagement with the enemy that does not set moral standards in relation to the enemy. In other words, if you are as bad as your enemy then you deserve each other. It is only by offering some standard of superiority that is moral and ethical can a distinction between good and evil be made, even if that morality requires one to appear 'weak' in another sensibility. It's strength comes through the moral distinction that is brought about by acting differently in relation to ones enemy. Mercy, for example, is such a powerful act of distinction that history smiles kindly upon forgivers, and those who can turn the other cheek, so to speak, yet the US it seems, clearly adopts the position that mercy is an act of weakness. An act of mercy can change the course of history, while an act of revenge is as common as day and only contributes to it's own reproduction.



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