To understand why the current situation of Al Qaeda is a success for Osama Bin Laden a decade after his death, it is necessary to know what he did in the 10 years prior to his assassination by special forces of the United States Army, on May 2 2011, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. To begin with because, both in academic and journalistic circles and among information and intelligence services, the false idea spread that, after the American reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 that deprived Al Qaeda of its Afghan sanctuary, the jihadist organization ceased to exist as such to be nothing more than an ideology in a mere label at the free disposal of jihadist groups that acted as an amorphous movement and without leadership. The perception of a reality that was quite different was thus distorted.
This very different reality consisted in the fact that, throughout the decade prior to his disappearance, Osama Bin Laden served as the leader of Al Qaeda. Although the circumstances of his leadership changed as of 2006, once he was transferred to the compound where five years later he lost his life, he was never isolated from the world or disconnected from his subordinates, to whom he passed guidelines on whose application he was informed. Through this leadership, he succeeded, in the first place, that the jihadist organization survived a very adverse scenario, that it extended its spheres of influence throughout the Islamic world and that it continued to be a threat to Western societies. Those three achievements of Osama Bin Laden as the top leader of Al Qaeda in the 10 years preceding his death allow us to understand his posthumous success.
In order for Al Qaeda to survive, Osama Bin Laden arranged for it to cease being a unitary entity to transform itself into a decentralized global structure, with a central command that relocated to northwestern Pakistan at the end of 2001. This is how its territorial branches appeared. . In the case of the first, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based on its own activists in the region. In the case of the following, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), as a result of differentiated processes of fusion with already existing jihadist groups in the areas where the new branches of the overall structure. In 2010, Osama Bin Laden accepted that Al Shabab was the branch of Al Qaeda in East Africa, which was disclosed after his death.
In 2013, however, Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, repudiated the Iraqi branch, which was expelled from Al Qaeda. This Iraqi branch was the only one that existed prior to the disappearance of Osama Bin Laden, whose board of directors repeatedly ignored his directives, especially regarding the designation of Shiites as a bank for attacks or an excessive practice of takfir by which Muslims were executed. accused of apostasy. After being separated from Al Qaeda, the once Iraqi branch was configured as the Islamic State to compete for the hegemony of global jihadism. But its ability to compete with al Qaeda was diminished when it failed to consolidate and expand the caliphate that it proclaimed over vast territories in Syria and Iraq. A caliphate that was reviled by Al Qaeda.
In the end, what has been consolidated and expanded, 10 years after Osama Bin Laden’s death, is Al Qaeda as a decentralized global structure that its founder envisioned. The branches that already existed were joined by another in Syria, in addition to Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQSI) and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GAIM), a branch of Al Qaeda in West Africa. Not that Al Qaeda was disdaining opportunities to establish a territorial domain of its own. In 2012 it was kept in northern Mali, under the direction of AQIM and through the collaboration of two partner organizations that a few years later will contribute to the formation of GAIM. But it was not set up as a caliphate – which is a long-term goal for al Qaeda – nor was it resorted to the Takfiri brutality that the Islamic State will soon display in Syria and Iraq.
The approach that both the central command of Al Qaeda and its territorial branches has been given to the relationship with the populations of the Islamic world – especially where state authority is weak and there is armed conflict – has favored the global jihadist structure to continue to establish numerous alliances with like-minded groups, Islamist militias or local tribes. Osama Bin Laden had urged his lieutenants and the leaders of the territorial branches of Al Qaeda to develop these alliances in the decade prior to his death, with the aim of recovering social support and advancing strategic interests in Africa, the Middle East and the South. from Asia. This dense warp currently extends from Mali to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, from Syria to Yemen.
In order for Al Qaeda to continue to be a threat in Western societies, Osama Bin Laden made two decisions while alive. On the one hand, he ordered the command of external operations of the global jihadist structure to facilitate the preparation of attacks in Europe or North America together with organizations associated with members or sympathizers on the ground, as happened with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) in the case of the 11-M attacks in Madrid. On the other, it authorized any territorial branch of Al Qaeda to be a source of a terrorist threat outside its areas of operation. AQAP, in particular, intervened in several attempted attacks in the United States and launched a propaganda campaign to instigate the execution of acts of terrorism by lone actors.
However, Osama Bin Laden had temporarily stopped considering these attacks on Western societies a priority so that – as he wrote in May 2010, a year before he was killed – Al Qaeda would enter a “new phase” that would “correct errors” and allow “Recover the trust of a large part of those who had stopped trusting the jihadists. This guideline was embodied by his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, in the General Lines of Jihad that he published in 2013. Al Qaeda today has several tens of thousands of active fighters in conflict zones where it intermingles its interests with those of local communities. It is at its best since 9/11 and must once again be considered a serious terrorist threat to the Western world in general and European societies in particular. It is the posthumous success of Osama Bin Laden.
Fernando Reinares is director of the program on violent radicalization and global terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute, and author of the book ’11 -M. The Revenge of Al Qaeda ‘(Gutenberg Galaxy, 2021).
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.