LONDON – “He lived a hero, he died a martyr. . .if they killed one Osama, a thousand others will be born,” says a comment on a Facebook group called “We are all Osama bin Laden.” The group formed one hour after U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of the al-Qaida leader’s death. The group already has around 30,000 “likes.” Moreover, there are more than 50 similar groups on Facebook.
Reaction to bin Laden’s death on Al Jazeera and other Arabic news outlets has been mixed. Some view the man as an icon, and that his death and burial at sea at the hands of American forces will not undermine that perception in the eyes of his sympathizers.
Egypt’s former Mufti, Sheik Nasr Farid Wasil, has declared bin Laden a martyr, “because he was killed by the hands of the enemy.” (Sheik Wasil, it should be made known, has no links or known sympathies for al-Qaida and he represents a very different Islamic school of thought.)
Aside from the mixed signals online, in the virtual world, the critical question is whether eliminating bin Laden marks the beginning of al-Qaida’s demise in reality. Some terrorist organizations have, of course, collapsed following the death of their charismatic leader. The case of Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo (the Japanese group that organized the Sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway in 1995), comes to mind here.
But capturing and trying violent leaders is probably a better marker of the end of such organizations — the chances of such an outcome being higher when such leaders recant their views and call on their followers to lay down their arms. Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Maoist Shining Path in Peru, and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, are notable examples.
By contrast, far from causing the demise of an armed movement, the killing of a charismatic leader at the hands of his enemies can transform such a figure into a martyr. Che Guevera was far more valuable to leftist militancy after his death than he was while alive.
Armed Islamism has its particularities, of course, but it also shares important characteristics with some of these groups, including the relationship between the physical elimination of a leader and organizational survival. Decentralized organizations with relevant ideologies, operating in contexts full of conditions conducive to armed action, usually survive leadership losses, whereas hierarchical, cult-like organizations often do not.
Since 9/11, al-Qaida has been far from a hierarchical, cult-like organization. Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi’s al-Qaida offshoot in Iraq demonstrates this well: The group was called al-Qaida in Mesopotamia for recruitment and propaganda purposes, but it was quite autonomous organizationally and operationally. When Bin Laden’s close collaborator Ayman al-Zawahiri asked al-Zaraqawi to avoid targeting Shiites, al-Zaraqawi instead escalated the violence against them.
Al-Qaida’s franchise model applies to Algeria, Yemen, North Mali, and Somalia as well. Like guerrilla movements of yore, al-Qaida partakes of “ideological front” tactics: small urban cells and/or vulnerable individuals subscribe to the ideology and self-recruit or self-start an affiliated cell. In all of its decentralized modes of operation, bin Laden mainly played the role of inspirational guide and iconic figurehead — a role better played when dead than hiding from U.S. guns.
Consider Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist intellectual who influenced bin Laden and others. Qutb was executed by Gamel Abdel Nasser’s dictatorship in Egypt in August 1966, in an attempt to reduce his influence. That tactic backfired badly. Of the 98 fellow Muslim Brotherhood prisoners with whom Qutb discussed his new confrontational ideology in 1964, 35 were strongly supportive, 23 strongly opposed, and 50 hesitant. Despite his status and prestige, Qutb had failed to persuade most like-minded inmates.
But no sooner was Qutb the intellectual executed than Qutb the grand martyr was born. His supporters soon numbered in the thousands, rather than the dozens, and he came to inspire generations, not just individual inmates. Moreover, Qutb was executed by an Arab Nationalist Muslim leader, whereas bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs. That makes a significant difference in the Muslim world.
Imprisonment, followed by recantation of violence, has become almost a trend in several jihadist groups, notably the 20,000-strong Egyptian Islamic Group, factions of the al-Jihad Organization in Egypt, and smaller groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Leading figures in armed Islamist movements have not only abandoned political violence, but have also de-legitimized it as a means for social and political change after time in prison.
For example, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl), an al-Qaida ideologue for a decade, published several books denouncing armed activism, both theologically and on tactical grounds, after spending several years in prison.
The same applies to the Islamic Group, a movement implicated in violent acts in almost a dozen countries throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including armed insurgency in Egypt, bombings in the United States and Croatia, assassination attempts in Ethiopia, and training camps in Afghanistan. In the 2000s, the imprisoned leadership of the Group produced more than 25 books aimed at de-legitimizing political violence.
Eliminating the “spiritual guide” (as opposed to the organizational leaders) of a militant group might be perceived as a political victory for a government in the short term, but it probably makes a comprehensive de-radicalization process less likely, and it will not necessarily mean the end of the organization in question. For long-term results, capture is almost always more effective than killing.
Omar Ashour is lecturer in politics and director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (U.K.), and the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.” © 2011 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences