On Point: Leveraging Bin Laden's Legacy of Failure


by Austin Bay
May 10, 2011

The Arab Spring popular revolts caught al-Qaida by surprise.The revolts are not al-Qaida's operational handiwork, and they certainly do notfit the ideologically driven historical narrative spun by al-Qaida elites, suchas the late Osama bin Laden.

Of course, militant Islamists are exploiting the revolts.Egyptian Islamist extremists have launched attacks on Coptic Christians,seeking to ignite a sectarian civil war and derail Egypt's transition process.Al-Qaida's Musab al-Zarqawi attempted the same ploy in Iraq, pitting Sunnisagainst Shias.

However, demands for jobs and freedom swamp calls for acaliphate.

Bin Laden's death at any time would have been a coup, buthis death now, in this fascinating Arab Spring, provides Arab modernizers witha political tool to challenge the utopian poppycock of militant Islamistextremists and forward the goal of marginalizing them in Egypt, Tunisia, Libyaand Syria.

Al-Qaida has always been first and foremost an informationpower whose most potent weapons are psychological manipulation, ideologicalinfluence and media exploitation.

Bin Laden's death gives the entire civilized world anopportunity to attack al-Qaida's strengths.

Al-Qaida's dark genius was to link the Muslim world's angry,humiliated and isolated young men to a utopian fantasy extolling the virtues ofviolence. Al-Qaida's appeal to perceived grievance and its promise to redress800 years of Muslim decline (by forging a global caliphate) made it a regionalinformation power. The 9-11 attacks made al-Qaida a global information power.Sept. 11 was bin Laden's international advertising campaign. He was al-Qaida'sCEO, corporate spokesman and AK-47 armed icon, all in one. His message: YoungMuslims could believe in his courage and rectitude.

He failed to create his caliphate, however -- and, oh, hewanted one, so desperately. The worldly power of the Islamic empire heenvisioned would confirm the divine sanction of bin Laden-interpreted religiouslaw.

It didn't happen. He's dead. And Muslim extremists won'tbring jobs to Egypt, either.

Bin Laden's also failed -- utterly -- to buckle America.America, according to Osama's narrative, was ultimately to blame for thewretchedness of Muslim lands. The U.S. supported corrupt governments, bothfeudal kingdoms (Saudi Arabia) and authoritarian regimes (Hosni Mubarak'sEgypt).

Bin Laden would take the war to the U.S., the distant enemy.Sept. 11 and subsequent attacks would expose America's cowardice, brittleness,colossal ineptitude and -- here's the crucial propaganda point -- its weaknessof will and spirit. America would quail. As America took casualties, it wouldflee, like it did in Somalia. The West would retreat from Muslim nations.Al-Qaida would take control of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It didn't happen. America didn't quit. U.S. Navy SEALs foundOsama in a bedroom then shot him, man-to-man. Crack American combat troops hadthe weapons and the will.

In September 2008, I wrote a column arguing that bin Laden'sreputation had already suffered a long, slow rot that in a curious way workedto America's advantage. Al-Qaida's insistent murder of Muslim civilians haddamaged its standing in the Arab world. Bin Laden retained a"gangsta" appeal, but mere survival was not his goal -- he had bigplans based on the calculated marriage of apocalyptic violence and theologicalconviction.

Bin Laden's legacy of failure establishes acounter-narrative to militant extremists who claim an armed theocracy is theArab Muslim future. Now is the time to emphasize his great historical flops.

Over the past week, the U.S. government has selectivelyreleased videos seized in the SEAL raid. If bin Laden's reputation is fracturedstatuary, some of the imagery is a sledgehammer for smashing it to dirtypowder. Bin Laden in his Pakistan pad isn't an Allah-inspired warrior bearingan assault rifle. One video outs him as a narcissist with a TV remote control,seated on pillows and watching himself on Al-Jazeera. But where's the suicidebomb belt, Osama? Oh, right, he's not wearing one. Those are for the expendablefaithful.

Osama bin Laden, violent visionary? No -- he's a pathetic,self-absorbed, gray-headed old man squinting beneath a bad light. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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