x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

After his death, bin Laden's enemies have a new best friend

Whatever the letters of Osama bin Laden reveal, there are bigger issues at stake in the region. For most Arabs and Muslims, he is a bad memory, best forgotten.

If Osama bin Laden hadn't already existed, they would have invented him. "They", of course, are his enemies. Today, long after his demise, his legend continues to be periodically resuscitated. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

Last Thursday, the release of 17 documents and letters seized by US commandos during the attack in Abbottabad showed an increasingly helpless leader struggling to keep control over Al Qaeda and its many affiliates.

There is little mystery in the timing of the announcement, which many news outlets jumped on. In a US elections season, the memory of bin Laden was always going to be invoked. From beyond the grave, he is still a reminder of, arguably, Barack Obama's finest hour.

"[Obama] is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make Biden take over the presidency for the remainder of the term, as it is the norm over there," bin Laden said in one of the more bizarre comments. "Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis."

You have to feel for the vice president. When terrorism's poster boy considers you a strategic asset, you might blush a little. Bad news for Mr Biden, but good news for the "head of infidelity".

Far more relevant was bin Laden's acknowledgement of the misery his actions have caused for Muslims, even if the insight was tempered with a heavy dose of delusion.

"Clear boundaries need to be established so that no Muslims fall victim except when it is absolutely necessary," wrote bin Laden.

Necessary? Look at the consequences of his actions. Were 30,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands in Iraq and thousands elsewhere, necessary? What of the mothers of dead children, the widowed wives and orphaned children? Of the millions who continue to endure the ritual humiliation of racial profiling? The unchecked Islamophobia in right-wing politics and media? All are, in a sense, consequences of his actions. With a little help from his enemies, of course.

If September 11 was a tragedy for the US, it has been a catastrophe for millions of Arabs and Muslims. Has anyone ever done so much harm to those he claimed to fight for - while justifying the belligerent policies of his enemies?

The answer lies in the "war on terror", which crystallised the image of Al Qaeda as an easily identifiable brand in the minds of many Americans, and of many others as well. In the long-bearded bin Laden, there was an evil, cartoonish villain that would have made James Bond scriptwriters weep with envy.

In the years before his death, the US continued to play up bin Laden's influence while paradoxically claiming Al Qaeda was being dismantled. The Arab revolutions - a "tremendous event" according to bin Laden's notes - were hailed by some as a rejection of his bankrupt ideology. In reality, there was no widespread acceptance of those ideas in the first place. By the time of his death, bin Laden was an anachronism, a pathetic figure huddled in isolation.

Al Qaeda as a brand is fading, we're told. But thanks to two disastrous wars and a clueless US policy in the Middle East, the extremism that bin Laden preached will live on in the newly emboldened Taliban, and indeed in any group of armed thugs in need of validation. Franchises in the Arabian peninsula and Somalia flourish.

And we all know who we can thank. Conspiracy theorists speculate uselessly about who really "made" bin Laden, with Dick Cheney and the Mossad figuring large. Who profited from the monster - hawks on every side - is far easier to answer.

Today, one week after the first anniversary of his death, bin Laden still serves a purpose. It is no surprise that the anniversary passed without much fuss in the Middle East. Whatever the letters reveal, there are bigger issues at stake in the region. For most Arabs and Muslims, he is a bad memory, best forgotten.

But don't expect his enemies to let go of that memory just yet.



On Twitter: AliKhaled_