Kurtz: Bin Laden’s death good; Al-Qaeda’s decline better

Michael Kurtz

Osama bin Laden fully deserved to die. I got the news whilst at SPAC that night, and proceeded to laugh and cackle and hoot and holler and sing and saunter my way down Sheridan. The cathartic combination of post-workout endorphins, retributive justice, and the Star-Spangled Banner blasting out of one particularly patriotic room in Bobb simply overwhelmed me. As a committed (if chronically disappointed) Democrat, it didn’t hurt that it was our president, that weak-willed, foreign-born, crypto-Muslim second coming of Jimmy Carter who got him.

But my initial euphoria soon faded. For the purposes of American national security, bin Laden’s death means more emotionally and psychologically than it does strategically. The more important trend is Al-Qaeda’s increasing impotence, fecklessness and waning popularity in the Muslim world.

Osama bin Laden had long been Al-Qaeda’s titular head rather than its active leader. Last week, Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, gave a speech on Al-Qaeda, and his 4,000-word text did not mention the terrorist leader once. In a similar vein, David Miliband, former British foreign secretary, called bin Laden’s death “more a symbolic and ideological hit on Al-Qaeda…than it is operational on them.” In fact, some security experts believe that bin Laden wasn’t even Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous leader. This January, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter deemed American-born and educated Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, suspected of inciting both the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted 2009 Christmas plane explosion, a graver threat.

Plus, Al-Qaeda’s potency has drastically declined. It is no longer a hierarchical, centralized organization that offers extensive, rigorous training, but a looser ideological movement comprised of a few thousand recruits across the Arab world, and “fewer than a hundred” members in its supposed hotbed of Afghanistan, according to National Security Adviser General James Jones. A January Congressional Research service report claimed it had “transformed into a diffuse global network and philosophical movement composed of dispersed nodes with varying degrees of independence.” A major U.S. intelligence document — the contents of which were leaked to ABC News on April 24th– found that Al-Qaeda no longer possesses the operational capability to conduct an attack on the scale of 9/11 and concluded that individual suicide bombings represented the extent of its abilities.The group’s new leadership is also lacking in credibility. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command who is now expected to take charge, is widely considered an uninspiring and uncharismatic figure who might struggle to lead.

Equally important, though, is the fact that the movement has lost clout in the Muslim world. A recent Pew survey of Muslim populations in six countries showed that just 33 percent of Palestinians, 25 percent of Indonesians, 22 percent of Egyptians, 18 percent of Pakistanis, 13 percent of Jordanians and 1 percent of Lebanese respondents said they had confidence in bin Laden to “do the right thing in world affairs.” Furthermore, the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring – from Egypt to Libya to Yemen, bin Laden’s ancestral home – serve as a resounding rejection of his violent creed.

Bin Laden’s death was exciting and historic. I remember what a bogeyman the Bush administration made him out to be and am extremely proud that we finally got him. But the better news – that Al-Qaeda is in tatters, organizationally and ideologically – is what keeps me sleeping soundly at night.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]