The man is dead, but the idea of bin Laden lives on
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: This op-ed was written shortly after U.S. special operators killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Bin Laden was the al Quaida leader who, along with the organization, was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It was submitted to (but declined for publication by) The Salt Lake Tribune. I would not have written it then if I did not believe it, nor would I be posting it now if I did not still believe it. I hope, however, that it does not prove prophetic. Time will tell.
I would be the last to argue that Osama bin Laden’s demise is a bad thing. As challenging as it has been for U.S. policymakers, intelligence officials, and security officials to deal with bin Laden and the terror he caused, however, at least he was “a known” rather than “an unknown.”
There’s an old saying which says, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” For nearly 20 years, bin Laden was “the devil we knew.” Now that al Quaida’s head has been severed from its body, one might be forgiven for wondering how many new heads will spring up in its place.
A key military tactic for neutralizing an enemy is removing its command and control. There can be no doubt that bin Laden’s removal poses a setback for al Quaida. However, it is a mistake to think of al Quaida and similar organizations as hierarchical, “top-down” enterprises which can be neutralized simply by removing a central figure.
The organization of al Quaida and similar groups into “cells,” each of which is designed to function more-or-less independently of the others and of overall leadership, tempers the significance of removing a central figure such as bin Laden. While bin Laden provided key financial and operational support and oversight, perhaps the idea of bin Laden (what he stands for) is his most important contribution to militant Islam.
While it took nearly ten years and untold resources to finally (at least informally, if not formally) bring bin Laden to justice, it will be even harder to dispense with what he represents. As large as the actual person of bin Laden was in life, the influence of the mere idea of bin Laden doubtless will increase now that he is dead.
Many terrorists and their organizations drew inspiration and direction from bin Laden, the man. Thankfully, their opportunity to continue directly to draw such inspiration from him (barring posthumous release of further communications) ceased the moment he was killed.
However, bin Laden, the idea, yet remains. Who knows how many terrorists yet to be recruited, and even how many terrorist organizations yet to be formed, will draw inspiration and direction from bin Laden, the idea?
Burying bin Laden at sea accomplished the goals of respecting Islam’s dictate regarding how soon the deceased should be buried after death and of depriving militant Islam of a physical location which doubtless would have become a central rallying point. Burying bin Laden at sea, however, did not prevent him from becoming a martyr. He became a martyr the moment he was killed.
Granted, it is healthy neither for nations nor for individuals to live in a perpetual state of hypervigilance like the one which prevailed in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Militant Islam’s mindsent and institutional memory, however, are much different from our own. It is a mistake to think that the passage of time and the removal of key figures have weakened its resolve.
Our short individual and institutional memories stand in stark contrast to militant Islam’s mindset. That mindset is captured neatly in an old Pakistani proverb: “If it takes me ten centuries to avenge my enemy, I will wait a thousand years for revenge. Bin Laden’s death does nothing to change that mindset.
Ken K. Gourdin received a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Weber State University in 1995, and was recently certified as a paralegal by the National Association of Legal Assistants. He lives in Tooele.
Update – October 18, 2012: I would be the last to crow over my powers as a seer. Given the loss of life that has resulted, I certainly take no pleasure in having my words in the foregoing piece borne out by recent events in Benghazi, Libya. However, true to my prediction, terrorists inspired by (if not affiliated with) those who sympathize with bin Laden appear to be responsible for the murders of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. embassy employees. To anyone who might protest that, unlike the events of September 11, 2001, those events did not occur on U.S. soil, recall that embassies are the sovereign territory of their sponsoring countries even though they’re located on foreign soil. For a more detailed examination of those events and the Obama Administration’s reaction to them, see the following address on this blog: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/libya-incident-terror-not-crime/