No tears for bin Laden in Muslim world

The lack of angry street protests and other signs of mourning across the Muslim world in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death is a clear sign that al-Qaeda's influence is fading.

Muted reaction to killing of Osama bin Laden a sign of al-Qaeda's waning influence

Nothing may be more shocking to a grieving al-Qaeda than the "absent element" in the dramatic story of Osama bin Laden's violent end.

That would be the angry street protests and other signs of mourning across the Muslim world that, for the most part, didn't happen or were relatively modest in scope. Five or so years ago, we would have counted on significant displays of anger.

This muted reaction is of far more significance to the world than any desperate vows by al-Qaeda to strike back with acts of retaliatory terror. Nothing shows more clearly how far the fundamentalist terror network has faded as a major force even in the very heartlands of Muslim grievance.

The fact that only two dozen protesters bothered to rally in Gaza with bin Laden signs must be a profound embarrassment to his fanatical followers, who see themselves as the vanguard of historic change.

Instead, bin Laden had increasingly come to be seen as yesterday's man even among most discontented Muslim societies.

"The timing of Osama bin Laden's death has just been perfect," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at Emirates University.

It comes at a time when bin Laden has come to be viewed not as a solution for Arab nations but as very much part of the problem, Abdulla said.

"Osama was one of the leaders — an inspiration to some — that were behind the misery, defeats and stagnation that the Arab world has been going through," he said. "[Now], his death adds to the modern, moderate and democratic Arab world that is currently in the making. This new Middle East is in sharp contrast to those who defined it before this year of change. Osama was an important force, but this is his end."

Al-Qaeda in disarray

Like many commentators, I made the point after bin Laden's death of how sidelined al-Qaeda has been by the historic Arab Spring of populist and democratic protests that have, in months, brought about reforms that decades of terrorism and bombings failed to achieve.

But I don't think, in fact, that this is an adequate description of the declining relevance of bin Laden.

Certainly, dissatisfied youth across North Africa and throughout the Middle East have found the possibility of actually achieving free elections and top-to-bottom political reform is far more attractive than the old rhetoric about jihad and martyrdom.

But the reality is that al-Qaeda was in decline years before the Arab Spring.

A courtroom sketch of Salim Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, on trial before a U.S. military commission in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on July 24, 2008. Hamdan was found guilty of providing material support for terrorism but acquitted of providing material support for al-Qaeda. He is one of the thousands of al-Qaeda supporters analysts say have been arrested or killed worldwide since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. ((Janet Hamlin/Pool/Reuters))

At least five years ago, numerous international experts and agencies were pointing to a weakening of al-Qaeda networks. At least two years ago, there were signs al-Qaeda's central command was in disarray, and the movement itself largely evolved into a series of terrorist franchises of very mixed effectiveness.

These assurances were not widely believed, because so many security threats seemed to disturb Western life, and, above all, because bin Laden seemed so devilishly and cleverly elusive and so charismatically attractive to his extremist followers.

Yet signs that the tide had turned against him were everywhere. Security analysts allege that thousands of al-Qaeda members and suspected supporters have been killed or arrested worldwide since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In recent years, the network is not thought to have amounted to more than a few thousand members at any one time.

Most of the established underground funding for al-Qaeda was cut off years ago and bin Laden's leadership cadre forced into hiding, which caused serious difficulties when it came to maintaining secure communications.

No strategic breakthrough

The strength of al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts remained in regional conflict zones, including the Palestinian Territories, Kashmir, Chechnya, Indonesia, Algeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, an astonishingly rich soup of discontent and susceptibility to the call of martyrdom. In recent years, there's been some limited success in recruiting more adherents among the most discontented minority Muslim populations in the West.

A supporter of the banned extremist Islamist organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa wipes away tears while taking part in a symbolic funeral prayer for late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 3, 2011. Pakistan is one of the few Muslim countries where al-Qaeda still enjoys popular support, writes Brian Stewart. ((Athar Hussai/Reuters))

But for all this, al-Qaeda was never able to achieve a strategic breakthrough.

It never toppled a government, never won a war and never managed to carve out more than a few very remote havens in failed states, like Somalia, or zones of semi-anarchy, like northwest Pakistan or Yemen.

Even in Iraq, al-Qaeda's fanatical adherents, bloody-minded in their taste for massacres and torture, turned both Sunnis and Shiites violently against them. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda's obsession with world revolution was ultimately scorned by its ally, the Taliban, which remains strictly a nationalist insurgency.

For years, al-Qaeda was a spectre haunting the West. But populations tend to adapt after time to the shock of terrorism (while unfortunately also showing less concern over creeping abuse of civil rights). Following 9/11, after which al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan, it could point to few answering tactical successes against the West.

Since the large bomb attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), there has been no major security crisis with large-scale loss of life in the West. Al-Qaeda remains an expensive and annoying threat rather than an actual source of death and destruction in Western cities.

Security services united against bin Laden

In part, al-Qaeda's failure to maintain the terror momentum of 2001-2005 is due to the very backlash bin Laden incurred among security services around the world. It is estimated as many as 135 nations, including Canada, now share some degree of their counter-terrorist intelligence.

Most importantly, even in areas rife with anti-Americanism and distrust of the West, al-Qaeda has seen its members arrested without much popular protest. The network has never been able to rely on the "hearts and minds" of local populations to protect it (with perhaps the highly controversial exception of parts of Pakistan).

'Ultimately, al-Qaeda's greatest weakness is the Muslim world's own basic disapproval of the shocking cruelty of its methods.

Ultimately, al-Qaeda's greatest weakness is the Muslim world's own basic disapproval of the shocking cruelty of its methods, which so casually justified the mass killing of innocents, along with the woolliness of its fanatical world view, which never seemed to address local needs for reform.

Long before the Arab Spring, bin Laden and his Jihad were held in disfavour in the Muslim world, says Greg Austin, a director of the EastWest Institute, which studies global security:

"Globally, whether he is alive or dead, it doesn't really matter," he insists. "Right throughout the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden had lost credibility in the last 10 years rather than gained it. I think that terrorism has really been delegitimized for most Muslims."

The charismatic Jihadist leader met an end he likely anticipated, although his corpse disposed of "somewhere at sea" was likely not part of his martyr's vision.

Some fanatics will cherish his memory, and we can expect attacks to avenge him. There is no reason to expect, however, that these will either alter history or reverse the overall decline of al-Qaeda.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.