President Barack Obama took to a White House podium a year ago Tuesday to tell the world that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid. A year later, former White House counter-terrorism advisor and ABC News consultant Richard Clarke looks at what role bin Laden really played and how the world has changed since his death.
Appearing on ABC News' "This Week" on Sunday, White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan reaffirmed the Obama Administration's intent to destroy al Qaeda. It was at once a muscular declaration of an aggressive policy and simultaneously an admission that al Qaeda is not dead yet. Asked by George Stephanopoulos if the death of Osama bin Laden seemed as important now one year after his death as it had at the time, Brennan quickly said that the al Qaeda leader's demise was very significant, but he then used the word "symbolic" to describe the importance.
What then are we to think about al Qaeda and its late leader on the one year anniversary of his demise?
Historians once debated the relative importance of the "great man" theory of events compared to the "inevitable forces" or trends as the shapers of history. With bin Laden and al Qaeda we see the importance of both.
Prior to the unlikely founder of al Qaeda, no man had ever been able to unite Muslims from so many regions into a revolutionary movement that combined ideology, organization, funding, military training, and direct action. He did so without being a government official and without the overt assistance of any government (except the Taliban regime which ran much of Afghanistan). Bin Laden facilitated groups as far flung as Indonesia and the Philippines in the Pacific and Morocco and Libya in North Africa. Far more than just a symbol, he was an administrator, intent on insuring that the nuts and bolts of terrorism were provided to widely dispersed and semi-autonomous franchises.
By the time of his death, bin Laden may have had little control over the far flung affiliates of al Qaeda.
We can think of him in his last few years as a CEO of a multinational organization, trying to operate without the Internet or telephones, watching as members of his team of executives were picked off one after another. His organization, which had pioneered the use of the Internet and mobile communications to operate a terror network, now knew that if its leaders used that modern technology, it could result in death from the buzzing, flying killer robots from America.
Bin Laden had been reduced to a man unable to leave his house, pulling on organizational levers that appear to have been connected to little or nothing. Documents recovered from his house reveal his frustration at America's success in killing the leaders of his core organization, the team that U.S. counter-terrorism experts called Al Qaeda Central.
One man, however, is not responsible for the millions of people who supported the violent Sunni Islamist extremists that spread across dozens of nations. They were the outgrowth of bad government, of regimes unwilling to share power with their people, or incapable of solving grinding socio-economic problems. Violent Islamist extremists offered the only readily available alternative, a dream of a theocracy in which the application of a strict version of Sunni Islam would somehow solve the problems created by globalism, over-population, and under-education. With or without bin Laden and his al Qaeda, many frustrated Muslims would have turned to the so-called religious men with bombs and guns.
What bin Ladin added to the mix, in addition to his organizational skills, was the psychological ploy of projection.
He encouraged his followers to project their anger about their condition on to an external force, America. Calling America "the Far Enemy," he reasoned that the oppressive, local regimes could not be defeated until the Far Enemy was driven from the region. When his terrorist attack teams inflicted pain on America, their actions not only proved that America was weaker than had been thought, but the attacks also galvanized supporters into thinking that they too could attack the governments they feared.
In the process of such attacks, al Qaeda went from being a pseudo-religious organization meant to advance theocracies to a killing machine. Most of the people its cells killed were Muslims. Most Muslims eventually turned away in disgust or horror. Later, many in the Muslim world turned their attention on the "Near Enemy," their own sclerotic governments, toppling four regimes and extracting concessions from many more in the wave of uprisings we call The Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had almost no role in the "Arab Spring," leaving its isolated leadership to wonder how they could remain relevant.
That narrative, however, is incomplete. The al Qaeda franchises are still a major factor. Groups calling themselves al Qaeda or claiming affiliation with that movement have large, armed formations in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, and in the Magreb and the Sahel regions of Africa. They are conducting military-styled attacks in some countries and waves of bombings in others. They are participating in the "Arab Spring" fighting in Libya and Syria.
For them, bin Laden is still a motivating hero. What is not yet clear is how many of them are motivated by bin Laden's call to attack the Far Enemy. Some of them still are.