In May 2011, President Barack Obama announced that US special forces had killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who oversaw the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Obama called bin Laden’s death “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.”
The problem for Obama is that “defeating al-Qaeda” is no longer a meaningful frame for the struggle to make the world safe from terrorism and violence – and yet the US and its allies still regularly invoke it to make sense of their own actions.
Five years since bin Laden was “taken out”, the world is dogged by far more violence and destruction than he ever caused. Thousands died on 9/11, but hundreds of thousands more have perished in other conflicts, including many with other radical Islamist movements. Millions are displaced with little to no prospect of a return home.
For all the chaos and violence that looms large in its history, al-Qaeda is not the chief culprit. Instead, bin Laden was already a bystander in May 2011, relegated years earlier to the refuge of a Pakistani safe house. And since then, his much-vaunted organisation has been dramatically outpaced by other groups, whose plans and operations are much more dangerous.
The truth is that al-Qaeda was long ago reduced to a mere symbol. It was largely a spent force by the end of 2005. Most of the key figures were dead or locked in limbo at Guantanamo Bay; its international networks had been disrupted, even destroyed. Its leaders were sequestered in their sanctuary in Pakistan, and showpiece attacks directly inspired by bin Laden and his lieutenants were a thing of the past.
Instead, the world was subject to a new breed of terrorist carnage.
This was thanks in part to George W. Bush’s belligerent administration, whose assorted follies created a whole new set of problems still with us today. The US-led invasion of Iraq left that country shattered by insurgency, civil war and sectarianism. Afghanistan, supposedly “liberated” from the Taliban after 9/11, instead became an arena of competing factions – included the far-from-vanquished Taliban.
The cottage industry of terrorism analysts and “jihadologists” spawned by 9/11 maintained that al-Qaeda was still the central challenge because of its so-called “franchises” in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Since the spectre of al-Qaeda always guaranteed attention and support, this perception held sway in almost all of the world’s media.
But it was an illusion. If local movements had been inspired by al-Qaeda, they had now gone their own way in all but name.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a petty criminal from Jordan who met bin Laden in Afghanistan, was finally able to create his movement amid the turmoil in Iraq in 2003. He branded it “al-Qaeda in Iraq”, but its approach was very different from Bin Laden’s, concentrating on the “near war” in Iraq rather than the “far war” in the West and elsewhere. It also used even more violent methods than those considered acceptable by the al-Qaeda leader.
At the same time, deadly and quite unrelated conflicts were brewing elsewhere. In Iraq, the al-Maliki government was pursuing increasingly harsh measures against Sunni communities; in neighboring Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his military were using a variety of methods to kill civilians en masse.In Pakistan, the US’s primary battles weren’t with al-Qaeda but with the Pakistani Taliban and local factions fighting for power and influence in the country’s north-west. In North Africa, a Salafist group made up mainly of Algerians, Moroccans, and Saharan groups styled itself “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” for the purposes of its local campaigns. Al-Shabaab, meanwhile, has always been grounded in the conflict in Somalia, even if it has claimed “allegiance” to al-Qaeda of some sort.
And then there were the decades-old conflicts that had helped propel Bin Laden’s initial vision. While the US had at least removed its troops from Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remained beyond resolution, and would remain so long after bin Laden’s demise.
All of these demanded a considered approach that took account of the local causes of conflict, not the blunt invocation of “al-Qaeda”. But it was far easier to take refuge in the spectre than to engage with the political, social, and military difficulties that were emerging on the ground.
President Obama made that much clear in a telling and ultimately rather damaging interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick in January 2014, a few days after the so-called Islamic State (IS) – the descendant of Zarqawi’s Iraq militia – had taken advantage of the Iraqi government’s missteps to capture the city of Fallujah.
Remnick put it to Obama that “the flag of al-Qaeda is now flying in Fallujah in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria, [and] al-Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too”. The president responded with a basketball reference, suggesting that IS was not a top-tier threat:
The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a [junior varsity] team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them [Lakers superstar] Kobe Bryant.
Within months, IS had shamed Obama’s complacency. It severed its ties to al-Qaeda and embarked on a lightning offensive which took much of Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and ultimately seized swathes of cross-border territory.
This was (and still is) beyond al-Qaeda’s ability. But instead of directly grappling with the new reality, Obama simply grafted the label of “terrorist” from the remainder of bin Laden’s men onto IS. He dislocated the new threat from its local setting, even using an acronym – “ISIL”, for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – which made no reference to Syria at all.
We continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm … One of those groups is ISIL.
Indeed, the bonus for Obama was that he could use “ISIL” and the al-Qaeda spectre to remove himself from other quandaries. His policy towards Syria was in disarray by 2014, as the regime not only defied calls to remove Bashar al-Assad from office but added chemical weapons to its attacks on opposition areas; he vetoed any effective response to Assad’s behaviour and shifted the focus to IS, justifying the course correction by tarnishing much of the Syrian rebellion as “extremist”.
This neatly collapsed the incredibly complex Syrian catastrophe into a simple counter-terrorism problem, and set the stage for two years of disastrously negligent US policy.
Had the spectre of al-Qaeda not dominated the US’s security policy for so long, perhaps the Obama administration would’ve been more imaginative and less blinkered. Instead, the long-standing obsession with the group has worn a deep groove that US foreign policy seems unable to escape.
Scott Lucas is a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham