Al-Qaeda Is No More, With or Without Bin Laden

By Ghassan Dahhan

With the current unrest in the Middle East it appeared that, all of a sudden, everybody seemed to have forgotten about what President George W. Bush once described as “the biggest threat to civilisation itself”. Yet, with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has again taken centre stage in global politics and media coverage. The question that remains is: What is left of Al-Qaeda? Contrary to the popular assumptions, Al-Qaeda never fitted the description of an organisation because it lacks the very one element in order to be defined as such: structure. 

Instead, Al-Qaeda can be defined as a movement whose ideology prescribes individuals – not necessarily aligned to Bin Laden or anyone else within his inner circle – to take up arms against what it calls the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” and its Arab allies with the goal of ending their presence in the Islamic world. Eventually, after this goal has been met, an Islamic Caliphate ought to be established. As with any other movement, Al-Qaeda’s success is largely defined by the support it finds among its audience.

Al-Qaeda’s lack of organisation has several important benefits: its survival does not depend on the well being of a few key members, enabling the movement to continue its daily activities even if one of its members is assassinated or captured. Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi is to grant individuals a franchise under which they can launch attacks against its enemies. Its franchised structure also reduces the odds of successful infiltration by foreign intelligence agencies. Furthermore, using Al-Qaeda as a platform enables nondescript individuals and groups to reach a wider audience than they otherwise would.   

However, radicalised individuals are not alone in taking advantage of Al-Qaeda. Various Arab regimes derive much of their international legitimacy from the fact that they support the West in its quest to combat Sunni extremism. Consequently, many of these regimes are actively inflating the threat emanating from Al-Qaeda in order to extract political, economic, and more importantly military support from the West.

But how serious is the threat from Al-Qaeda to the West or its Arab allies?

Undeniably, Al-Qaeda and individuals operating under its banner have managed to cause havoc at times – as evidenced by the attacks on 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the 7/7 attacks in London, or the bombing of a Jordanian hotel in 2005 – but the group has never come close to achieving even one of its stated aims. There are several reasons for this. First, the absence of a joint command within the movement had an adverse element to it; although it hampered its enemies from infiltrating and disrupting the movement, it also allowed individuals to operate free of any authority.

This problem became evident when Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi assumed control of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Under his command, its members committed numerous atrocities against civilians, despite several calls by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, one of Al-Qaeda’s key ideological figures, to end the bloodshed. In the eyes of many Muslims, the footage of gruesome beheadings and reports of mass torture of Iraqis (for the most part fellow Muslims) at the hands of Al-Zarqawi’s organisation tarnished Al-Qaeda’s reputation. For many Iraqis, it turned from being a defender of the oppressed Muslim nation into the oppressor. As a result, support for the movement – a vital component for any movement to be successful – dwindled across the Arab world.

Second, members of the movement clearly suffered from a distorted self-image – perhaps due to prolonged isolation from the outside world for fear of assassination or capture. The movement overestimated its own capabilities, while underestimating the ability of its enemies to maintain unity in times of crisis. In fact, the aggressive pursuit of Al-Qaeda’s agenda and its strong craving for violence alienated both friend and foe, enabling its enemies to forge alliances against it more easily – the most notable example is the “Awakening Councils” in Iraq that consist of former allies and even ex-members of Al-Qaeda who have pledged allegiance to the Iraqi government, supported by the Americans.

Bereft of popular support, allies, and a consistent strategy, no movement is able to survive for a considerable amount of time, including Al-Qaeda. Particularly after the dramatic victory of Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War and the Shia group’s re-emergence on the Arab political stage, Al-Qaeda was pushed into the background. In order to rescue itself from oblivion, Al-Qaeda made several attempts to reposition itself on the political stage. However, most efforts failed because of poor preparation, and the clumsiness by which the attempts were characterised – for example the so-called “underwear bomber”, who tried to blow himself up during a flight to the US, was first detected when he tried to board the plane without presenting a valid document and then, instead of blowing up the plane, accidently burned his genitals – seemed to contest the notion of a potent threat.

Except for the sake of retribution and symbolism, the assassination of Bin Laden is largely irrelevant in two respects: first, on the day he was killed the movement had already become an extraneous force; the question of who is in charge of Al-Qaeda therefore makes little difference for the world. Secondly, even if Al-Qaeda indeed was a considerable force, the movement could have easily survived without him being around.

Ironically, Arab governments are not overcome with joy on seeing Al-Qaeda leaving the political stage because the latter’s presence provides them with more or less the only form of legitimacy that is left in order to effectively remain in power. To the detriment of both, the recent uprisings in the Arab world have accelerated the process of political erosion: no longer does Al-Qaeda suffice as a legitimate reason for the Arab leaders to stay in power, nor does the movement find much support among the Arab audiences as there are more appealing alternatives available for disposing authoritarian regimes. In fact, the values conveyed by the protesters are exactly the opposite to those of Al-Qaeda and most Arab dictators:  that is, fair elections, the rule of law, and civil liberties, amongst others.

For years the myth of Al-Qaeda has been upheld by Arab dictators. They have capitalised on the general conviction that a continuation of the status quo in the Arab world was crucial in order to maintain security. Now that the Arab uprisings have unveiled this myth and Bin Laden is dead it seems that an era of relentless Al-Qaeda-frenzy will finally come to an end. What is more interesting at this point is to see whether the Arab regimes will be able to survive without Al-Qaeda, and if so, for how long.


Ghassan Dahhan is a Political Scientist and Analyst. He has frequently contributed to foreign policy debates, with articles appearing in various well-established newspapers and journals. Ghassan is currently based in London where he pursues a MA in War Studies at King’s College. 


4 May 2011