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Terrorism after bin Laden

Two propositions: first, whatever its short-term consequences, the killing of Osama bin Laden will neither significantly hasten nor significantly delay the decline of al-Qa’eda. That is happening anyway. Secondly, however slowly or rapidly AQ declines, it will not significantly affect the global level of terrorism. We’re stuck with it anyway. But it’s manageable.

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

Two propositions: first, whatever its short-term consequences, the killing of Osama bin Laden will neither significantly hasten nor significantly delay the decline of al-Qa’eda. That is happening anyway. Secondly, however slowly or rapidly AQ declines, it will not significantly affect the global level of terrorism. We’re stuck with it anyway. But it’s manageable.

Two propositions: first, whatever its short-term consequences, the killing of Osama bin Laden will neither significantly hasten nor significantly delay the decline of al-Qa’eda. That is happening anyway. Secondly, however slowly or rapidly AQ declines, it will not significantly affect the global level of terrorism. We’re stuck with it anyway. But it’s manageable.

AQ began as a database recording the names of foreign fighters killed in 1980s Afghanistan. The term may have originated with Abdullah Assam’s 1987 call for al-Qa’eda al-sulbah (a vanguard of the strong) but it became widespread only when the FBI gave it legal status while investigating the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The unintended consequence of this was to endow a disparate jihadi movement with the apparent solidity and legal status of those it chose as its enemies — the nation states of Middle Eastern and western governments. We treated it as the monolith it never was, which made us less adroit in combating it.

It peaked, of course, with 9/11, since when it has lost through death or capture more than 75 per cent of its original leadership and probably around 3,500 fighters. Despite focusing its war against the West, and America in particular, it has achieved little in terms of action, with London’s 2005 bombings arguably the only successful attack it has organised since 9/11. The number of Americans killed by terrorism since 9/11 roughly equals the number who drowned in their baths.


Yet AQ has been hugely successful in turning itself into a global insurrectionist franchise, the protest movement of choice. Appealing to the young and disaffected, it has made effective use of modern communications. ‘The media war in this century is one of the strongest methods,’ wrote the late bin Laden. ‘Its ratio may reach 90 per cent of the total preparation for battles.’ It was also outstandingly, if unwittingly, successful in involving the West in costly interventions in Muslim countries. As bin Laden said in 2004, ‘All we have to do is send two mujahedin… [and] raise a piece of cloth on which is written “al-Qa’eda” in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.’

But in recent years the West has become cannier and there are signs that the AQ brand appeal is fading. It has played no significant part in the protests throughout the Middle East this year, its attacks have declined in frequency, and former recruiting sergeants such as the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions lack pulling power.

Moreover, terrorist groups have a natural lifespan. They generally last an average of around eight years, nearly always failing to achieve their objectives and collapsing through internal decay, infighting, repression and loss of popular support. Those that last longer, such as AQ, are either sustained by a nationalist, territorial cause or take on the characteristics of a social movement.

The latter usually last 25 to 40 years, ageing with their founders. Generational transfer is difficult, fashions change and as they go on they splinter and lack focus. AQ is about due for this and there are indications already of ideological diffusion, ambiguous rhetoric and unclear priorities, which may suggest increasing isolation and internal dissipation. Political contexts change and people move on. Attacks will continue to be launched by AQ in Yemen and the death of bin Laden may produce an upsurge of violence, but it’s likely to be no more than a blip on the downward graph.

So what next? The American writer Marc Sageman has written persuasively of what he calls ‘leaderless jihad’, the process by which small groups of self-starters become terrorists via the internet. There is no negotiating with such virtual social movements and even if they’re arrested, killed or they just drop out, their extremist websites and fora are there for others to discover. What’s more, thanks to the internet, terrorist technology is now available to all.

The next big cause may not be religious. Environmental terrorism would be a natural home for the extremist temperament — you are killing the planet, therefore I kill you to save the planet. The Unabomber, a mathematician who terrorised America from the 1970s to the 1990s, would no longer be a loner.

But the figures are on our side: we should sleep safely. There has only ever been one terrorist attack with casualties in the thousands and about 19 over the past 25-plus years in the hundreds, while the overwhelming majority have killed fewer than ten. From a peak of 22,000 attacks in 2007 (of which 6,200 were in Iraq), killing about 22,000, the trend has been downwards. Compare that with roughly 2 million accidental deaths worldwide every year.

If terrorism were a disease, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence wouldn’t put much money into fighting it. But the genie is out of the bottle now: it will always be with us, happening to someone somewhere. What we must do is keep on top of it without reinforcing the political and social factors that give it legs.


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