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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 not fit the ideologically driven historical narrative spun by al-Qaida elites, such as 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 Sunnis against Shias.

However, demands for jobs and freedom swamp calls for a caliphate.

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

Al-Qaida has always been first and foremost an information power whose most potent weapons are psychological manipulation, ideological influence and media exploitation.

Bin Laden's death gives the entire civilized world an opportunity 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 of violence. Al-Qaida's appeal to perceived grievance and its promise to redress 800 years of Muslim decline (by forging a global caliphate) made it a regional information 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's CEO, corporate spokesman and AK-47 armed icon, all in one. His message: Young Muslims could believe in his courage and rectitude.

He failed to create his caliphate, however -- and, oh, he wanted one, so desperately. The worldly power of the Islamic empire he envisioned would confirm the divine sanction of bin Laden-interpreted religious law.

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

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

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 weakness of will and spirit. America would quail. As America took casualties, it would flee, 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 found Osama in a bedroom then shot him, man-to-man. Crack American combat troops had the weapons and the will.

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

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

Over the past week, the U.S. government has selectively released videos seized in the SEAL raid. If bin Laden's reputation is fractured statuary, some of the imagery is a sledgehammer for smashing it to dirty powder. Bin Laden in his Pakistan pad isn't an Allah-inspired warrior bearing an 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 suicide bomb belt, Osama? Oh, right, he's not wearing one. Those are for the expendable faithful.

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

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