Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer is a commentator on international affairs based in London

Gwynne Dyer: Bin Laden's prospects died long before he did

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Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Osama bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 atrocities in the United States and various lesser terrorist outrages elsewhere, has been killed by American troops in his hideout in northern Pakistan.

At last, the world can breathe more easily. But not many people were holding their breaths, anyway.

President Barack Obama issued the usual warning when he announced that bin Laden had been killed by American troops in a compound in the city of Abbottabad.

"The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.

"There's no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us."

But that wasn't quite right, either.

No doubt attacks will continue to be made in the Arab world in the name of al-Qaeda but the original organisation created by bin Laden has been moribund for years.

Outside the Arab world there have been no major terrorist assaults for about five years now, and bin Laden's death is unlikely to change that.

The whole enterprise was never what it seemed. Bin Laden was a revolutionary before he was a terrorist. His goal was to overthrow existing Arab governments and replace them with regimes that imposed an extreme form of the Salafist (Islamist) doctrine.

Bin Laden believed that once all Muslims had accepted that doctrine they would benefit from God's active support and triumph over the outside forces that held them back. Poverty would be vanquished, the humiliations would end and the infidels ("the Zionist-Crusader alliance") would be defeated.

It was essentially a form of magical thinking, but his strategic thinking was severely rational.

Successful revolutions bringing Salafist regimes to power were the key to success but for the revolutions to succeed they had to win mass support among Arab and other Muslim populations. Unfortunately only a small proportion of Muslims accepted Salafist ideas, so some way had to be found to win them over.

That's where the terrorism came in.

Terrorism is a classic technique for revolutionaries trying to build popular support. The objective is to trick the enemy government, local or foreign, into behaving so badly that it alienates the population and drives people into the arms of the revolutionaries.

Then, with mass popular support, the revolutionaries overthrow the government and take power. This kind of terrorism has been used so often, and the strategy behind it is so obvious, that no 21st-century government should ever fall for it. But if the terrorist attacks kill enough people it is hard for the government being attacked not to overreact, even if that plays into the terrorists' hands. The pressure at home for the government to "do something" is almost irresistible.

The Bush Administration duly overreacted to 9/11 and invaded two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, on a futile quest to "stamp out terrorism" - which was, of course, exactly what bin Laden and his colleagues wanted the United States to do.

However, almost 10 years after 9/11 it is clear that bin Laden's strategy has failed, even though the US fell into the trap he had set for it. Muslims everywhere were appalled by the suffering inflicted on Afghans and Iraqis and many condemned the US for its actions - but they didn't turn to the Salafists instead.

When popular revolutions finally did begin to happen in the Arab world five months ago, they were non-violent affairs seeking the same democracy that secular countries in the West and elsewhere already enjoy. The Salafists have become virtually irrelevant.

Which is not to say that there will never be another terrorist attack on the US. Bin Laden had not been in operational control of al-Qaeda for many years because regular communication with the outside world would have allowed US forces to track him down.

The compound in Abbottabad had neither telephone nor internet connections. The real planners and actors are still out there.

The question is: what can the Salafists possibly do now that would put their project back on track? The answer - the only answer - is to goad the US into further violence against Muslims in retaliation for some new terrorist atrocity against Americans.

There have been no major attempts by al-Qaeda to attack the US in the past 10 years because it was already doing what the terrorists wanted. Why risk discrediting President George W. Bush by carrying out another successful terrorist attack, even if they had the resources to do so?

But the probability of a serious Salafist attempt to hit the US again has been rising ever since American troops began to pull out of Iraq, and President Obama's obvious desire to get out of Afghanistan raises it even further.

Bin Laden's strategy has not delivered the goods for the Salafists but they have no alternative strategy. Bin Laden's death would provide a useful justification for another attempt to hit the US but it wouldn't really be the reason for it - and it probably wouldn't succeed, either.

Bin Laden's hopes died long before he did.

- NZ Herald

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.

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