By James J.F. Forest
The world is without doubt a safer place now that Osama bin Laden is dead. He personified terrorism; he promoted an ideology that called for killing and massive destruction in order to achieve political change through radicalized Islam. He is responsible for the murder of thousands of people around the world. His death is a major symbolic, tactical and emotional victory for the civilized world. Perhaps the largest impact right now is a sense of closure for the thousands of families who lost loved ones in those attacks on 9/11, as well as the families of victims of the USS Cole bombing, the 1998 Embassy bombings, and other attacks that bin Laden is responsible for.
But at the same time, amid the feelings of relief (and the demand from some that the administration release grisly photos of bin Laden’s corpse), I think it is also safe to say that many Americans, along with many Pakistanis and Europeans, are right now holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. We are all anxious about where and when any possible retaliation attacks might take place. With that in mind, it is important to take a hard look at what will likely be the short-term future of al-Qaida.
Yes, unfortunately, al-Qaida does have a future despite the elimination of a central figure like bin Laden. After all, al-Qaida is not really a group; it’s more of a movement with a central base of inspiration and support, but with affiliate groups in various parts of the world, and individuals who are inspired to carry out violent acts based on al-Qaida’s ideology. They have embraced what scholars call a “leaderless resistance” model of terrorism, in which local affiliates and individuals are encouraged and guided to raise their own funds, acquire their own weapons, choose targets and carry out their own attacks in support of al Qaida’s ideology and strategic objectives.
Al-Qaida’s ideology is their center of gravity, a collection of beliefs and strategic guidance that can be summarized in just four words: think globally, act locally. Myriad propaganda videos describe the world in a dark “us versus them” narrative in which the Muslim world is being systematically attacked by the international community. Building on this narrative, al-Qaida’s central message encourages individuals to “Think about how much better your lives would be if a global Islamic caliphate ruled mankind; now, do something to help bring this utopian vision closer to reality.” The overall goal is to inspire individuals, and in some cases locally established terrorist or insurgent groups, to consider themselves part of a global movement, and then carry out attacks locally in the name of that movement. So from this perspective, al-Qaida is still a very significant threat despite the death of bin Laden. As long as the ideology resonates among some communities, and is able to influence and inspire violent acts on behalf of that ideology, al-Qaida will live on.
James J.F. Forest, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and contemporary security studies. He is also a senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, where he holds a TS/SCI security clearance with the U.S. Department of Defense and conducts research (both classified and unclassified) on insurgencies, emerging terrorist threats for the U.S. Special Forces community.
Dr. Forest is the former Director of Terrorism Studies at the United States Military Academy. During his tenure at West Point (2001-2010) he taught courses on international relations, terrorism, counterterrorism, information warfare, comparative politics and sub-Saharan Africa. He also directed a series of research initiatives and education programs for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, covering topics such as terrorist recruitment, training, and organizational knowledge transfer. Dr. Forest was selected by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy as one of “America’s most esteemed terrorism and national security experts” and participated in their annual Terrorism Index studies 2006 thru 2010. He is the author of Homeland Security: Protecting America's Targets and The Making of a Terrorist: Recruitment, Training, and Root Causes (Praeger).