It is tempting to look at the death of Osama Bin Laden and, while being pleased that the terrorist can no longer harm anyone, dismiss it as a merely symbolic act that will only stoke hatred for West in the Middle East. I believe this analysis is incorrect.
It is true that in the short term, America will receive a much needed morale boost, while the Middle East will have pockets of anger erupting. However, I believe that when one looks at the long term picture, it is then when the significance of Bin Laden’s death can be seen. It is first necessary to understand why Bin Laden was so important to the West.
Bin Laden’s death is important in the first place not because of what it says about Al-Qaeda necessarily, but because of what it says about the United States of America. Shortly after 9/11 President Bush promised that America would hunt down and capture or kill those responsible for the atrocities on American soil. President Bush understood that this was necessary in order to communicate to America’s enemies that fighting against them was only ever going to be a losing battle. No weakness could be shown.
Bin Laden broke that narrative; his escape and avoidance of Western forces indicated to the world that it was possible to attack America and get away with it. Bin Laden represented the decline in American superiority: despite what the American government was saying, there was indeed somewhere to hide. From this could be drawn the conclusion that it was also possible to beat America, as Al-Qaeda had beaten the Soviet Union in the early 1980’s. There the odds had been stacked against them, yet they pulled through and triggered the end of the USSR. They hoped to do the same with America.
Osama Bin Laden came therefore to represent not only defiance, but possible victory. As long as he could avoid capture, it could never be ruled out in the heads of its supporters that Al-Qaeda could destroy the USA as they had destroyed the USSR all those years ago. Bin Laden’s death ends this myth once and for all. It shows that whoever attacks the USA will lose. It may takes years, but eventually they will be tracked down and captured or killed. To fight against the USA in the modern world is to fight a losing battle.
One might think that this does not matter to Islamic extremists, who are intent on killing themselves anyway in the hope of paradise. Those who have no fear of death will surely have no fear of losing a war either? However, the Islamic martyrs form only a small part of a very large organisation with a very broad base of support. The cries from the left that Al-Qaeda represents only a very tiny minority of Muslims is only partly true – they do represent a minority of Muslims, but by no means a tiny one. Behind the nut job martyrs are millions of people who fund them, work for them, or just support them vocally. Additionally, sympathetic rogue states will be prepared to shelter and accommodate such individuals if they see it as serving their political aims.
It is these people that Bin Laden’s death will dissuade. Yes, his death might make those wannabe martyrs hate us even more, but the signal sent out to the millions of more “moderate” Al-Qaeda supporters is an unnerving one – “If you support these people, you will lose.” Therefore, those who are fighting for financial or political reasons as opposed to purely theological reasons will want to pause and reflect on their support for their war against America and the West.
Al-Qaeda cannot survive on ideological purists and martyrs alone; in order to be the global organisation it once was, it requires millions of financers, politicians and run of the mill citizens to support them on their quest. Bin Laden’s death will not only strengthen American resolve, but it will also trigger reflection amongst those who have given tacit approval to Al-Qaeda until now, and it could cause a significant wave of people to desert the once fashionable organisation. It could be this that signals the end of Al-Qaeda as we know them, and this would truly be something to celebrate!