Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 February 2020

Now to undo the damage bin Laden did

We all remember how the world rallied in solidarity after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and each subsequent atrocity. But it is against his fellow Muslims that bin Laden has committed his greatest crimes.

Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States, but the battlefield has been the Middle East and South Asia. We all remember how the world rallied in solidarity after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and after each subsequent atrocity - in Bali, Madrid, London and elsewhere. But it is against his fellow Muslims that bin Laden has committed his greatest crimes.

Justice has been served and bin Laden is dead, killed by US special forces at a Pakistani compound. But the al Qa'eda franchise - united by a violent obscurantism more than by a coherent ideology - still lives, less so in the mountains of Afghanistan where it was born than in the Arabian peninsula and the Maghreb, where disparate terrorists have laid claim to the mantle.

These splinter groups continue to hatch threats against the West, but at heart they are a poison threatening the stability of the very societies in which they live.

How much the loss of bin Laden will affect these legacy groups remains to be seen. His apparent successor Ayman al Zawahiri lacks any of his charisma - and the power of symbols should not be discounted. Certainly some will try to pretend that the criminal has become a martyr, and bin Laden's name will be used to justify further bloodshed.

But his ideology has long been discredited, from nation to nation. It is an unfortunate reality that following September 11, a minority indulged in outright triumphalism. The suffering of the United States was seen in some quarters as retribution for its interference, real and imagined, in Arab and Muslim countries.

Since then, we have come to know al Qa'eda too well: the child suicide bombers sent into markets; the deliberate and repeated targeting of Muslim holy sites to stoke sectarian tensions; and the uncounted innocents killed for no purpose besides terror. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Iraq war, where the thuggish cadre run by Abu Musab al Zarqawi was eventually marginalised by its former allies, tribes that had grown disgusted with the bloodshed.

All of this masqueraded as Islam, and pretended to the call of jihad. How have some Muslims tolerated anyone blowing himself up in a mosque in the name of jihad?

Far more than by the direct actions of bin Laden's minions, huge damage has been done to the world's welfare by misunderstanding. In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, strains of xenophobia have been inflated into the myth of a clash of civilisations.

And a myth it is. Two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were made possible by September 11, but the Iraq debacle was caused more by the blundering of the Bush administration than by any real threat.

The former US president's "war on terror" gave more impetus to this divide than bin Laden's pontificating rants from mountain hideouts ever could. The "one per cent doctrine" introduced by then vice president Dick Cheney treated even the remotest possibility of terrorist activity as a certainty. Racial profiling has since become a reality for millions.

It is a chance of history that bin Laden wrought so much harm. But angry recruits still rally to this murderous cause, in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the United States, Europe and beyond. This phenomenon, fuelled by ignorance and alienation, must still be addressed.

"We are facing an ideological conflict over the future of the entire region," Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Foreign Minister, told a security summit in Manama in December. "We cannot win an ideological war except through changing mindsets."

The way forward is clear. There is ample reason to see the American raid as a victory, one that, we can hope, will diminish al Qa'eda. There is also reason to step up the vigilance against retaliatory attacks.

But the cause bin Laden personified must be vanquished not with bombs and bullets but with communication and education. That struggle continues on.

Updated: May 3, 2011 04:00 AM