Sunday 29 April
Muhammad Rifadullah, a 36-year-old shopkeeper standing at a rally of extremist groups in the Pakistani capital, was nothing if not honest. “I am a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba,” he said, naming a Pakistani extremist organisation responsible for thousands of sectarian killings, which has been banned for several years. Around him shouts of “death to America” rose into the air.
“Anyone who disrespects or insults our prophet Muhammad, like Shias, Americans and Jews, then he is an enemy,” said Rifadullah.
Such demonstrations have become familiar sights in Pakistan over recent years. But one element has changed. Where once extremists spoke openly of their admiration for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, now praise is either muted or nonexistent.
“Bin Laden was a mujahid, but he is not my leader,” said Rifadullah. “Al-Qaida killed a lot of Muslims too.”
Before he died, Bin Laden was well aware that support for his group had waned. Documents found in the house in Abbottabad where he lived from 2005 until his death show that he considered changing the name of al-Qaida as part of a major rebranding exercise.
But few expected the speed with which the architect of the 9/11 attacks appears to have been forgotten by militants. After an outpouring of posthumous praise on militant websites and the release of a prerecorded “last message”, references to Bin Laden have become few and far between.
Even communiques from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded him at the head of al-Qaida, and the main al-Qaida website al’Shumukh al’Islam rarely mention their late leader.
Aaron Zelin, a researcher at Brandeis University in Boston, who monitors extremist websites, said: “In terms of the new primary source releases for al-Qaida branches and media outlets, there is certainly no daily tribute to Bin Laden, nor weekly, nor monthly for that matter. There is currently very little discussion of him at all.”
William McCants, an analyst at the US government-funded Centre for Naval Analyses, Virginia, and an expert in Islamic extremists’ use of the media, said Bin Laden was “not being talked about a great deal – even in al-Qaida’s own propaganda. Everyone seems to have moved on,” he said.
The vast bulk of postings on extremist websites these days – and the “chatter” intercepted by intelligence services – is focused on events in Syria, Egypt, Iraq or Yemen and the evolution of the Arab uprisings, security officials told the Guardian.
A key site for extremists looking for guidance on how to react to the rapidly evolving situation in the Middle East is run not by al’Qaida but by Abu Mohamed Assem al’Maqdisi, a conservative Jordanian Palestinian cleric who has been critical of bin Laden.
A British security official pointed out that many extremist sympathisers are barely out of their teens, so for a large proportion the 9/11 attacks are little more than a childhood memory – or even a historical event. Within a few years, Bin Laden will be a historical figure, he said, with “the contemporary edge” that intensified his appeal long gone.
But others argue that it is far too soon to consign the Saudi-born militant leader to history. Noman Benotman, a former Libyan militant now a senior analyst with the Quilliam Foundation in London, said that for many – jihadis and others – “Bin Laden is a kind of saint”. Benotman pointed out that Syed Qutb, an Egyptian militant hanged in 1966 and now revered by violent extremists, was barely known at the time.
Analysts have long argued that bin Laden’s role within al-Qaida was limited to strategic oversight.
One year after Bin Laden’s death, two main questions remain: what has been the short-term impact of his death on al-Qaida, and what is his long-term legacy?
One immediate consequence of his death was the succession of his capable but uncharismatic deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as head of the organisation.
But dozens of other senior al-Qaida figures have been killed. In December British officials told the Guardian that a “last push” would finish off the organisation’s senior leadership based in Pakistan, and last week, Charles Farr, head of the UK’s office of security and counter-terrorism, summed up the broad consensus of Western intelligence when he said that “al-Qaida central” had been heavily degraded.
But far-flung groups tenuously connected to al-Qaida’s senior leadership are becoming more prominent. Farr said that regional affiliates such as those in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa now posed an increased threat. The succession of Zawahiri has also seen a new focus on Egypt, the new leader’s homeland. “That’s the biggest prize of all now,” said Benotman.
The question of Bin Laden’s longer-term legacy is harder to answer. Many analysts point to militants’ now-familiar skill with propaganda.
Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old from Toulouse who killed seven people before being shot by police in March, filmed his attacks.
Videos emerging from Yemen, showing grateful villagers praising militants for providing services such as electricity, which the government has been unable to provide, are clearly influenced by Bin Laden’s teachings.
There is also a methodological legacy. Mass casualty suicide attacks, complex, simultaneous operations and multiple bombings were all relatively rare until they became the trademark of al-Qaida. Now their use continues as “standard operating procedure”, according to one Afghan-based US security official.
But part of that legacy, said Seth Jones, an expert at the Washington-based Rand Corporation who has advised the Pentagon, is also the group’s ongoing battle to ensure that such weapons are not used indiscriminately.
“The problem is knowing when to attack and how far to go. Bin Laden was fighting a struggle within the organisation to be careful not to alienate key constituencies,” Jones said.
Notwithstanding the loss of support for al-Qaida seen over recent years in the Islamic world, Bin Laden’s most dramatic legacy, many analysts agree, is the spread of his ideology and world view of a belligerent west set on repressing, exploiting and dividing the Ummah, the global Muslim community.
As a call to arms to the disaffected, angry, alienated or simply those in search of status or violent adventure, few doubt it remains effective. “Bin Laden’s legacy has been given a timelessness by his death,” said Benotman. “His actions when alive, his death – killed by the United States – and his idea that there is a global battle between the kuffar [unbelieve
rs] … and Islam, means he has reserved a place in both history and the future.”
Last week, EU interior ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss the challenge posed by “lone wolves” – violent extremists acting apparently in accordance with instructions in one of al-Qaida’s first communiques after the death of its leader, in which it called on followers “to carry out acts of individual terrorism” without previous consultation.
Since 2008, Europe has seen 13 terrorist attacks by “solo actors”, said Gilles de Kerchove, anti-terrorism co-ordinator at the European Union. The majority were linked to radical Islam.
But Bin Laden’s legacy is not restricted to the world of radical Muslim activism. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian rightwing extremist who killed 77 people last summer, said in court that he had studied the methods of al-Qaida, which he called “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world”.
Magnus Ranstorp, an expert at the Swedish National Defence College, said Bin Laden’s example taught Breivik how to launch an attack which was “very simple, very targeted, very quick and created huge mayhem and destruction.”
“It is very quiet around Bin Laden now but it is still very early”, Ranstorp added. “His legacy may yet get a second wind.”
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