The grievances that allowed al-Qaeda to grow still remain, says Rami Khouri
PRESIDENT Barack Obama and the Republican candidate-elect for president Mitt Romney have been trading accusations about how each of them relates to the killing of Osama bin Laden, and what his death means to the US and the world.
As usually happens when American public figures discuss the Middle East and terrorism, they mostly discuss peripheral issues and miss the main points about what bin Laden’s life and death really signify.
The US mission to assassinate bin Laden a year ago this week was a triumph of intelligence and efficient execution. Questions remain unanswered, about whether this operation on Pakistani soil was the right way to deal with allies, whether the Pakistani intelligence services had been shielding bin Laden for years, or whether the US troops should have captured bin Laden alive and put him on trial.
The important issues about bin Laden’s life, death, ideology, movement and serial and viral criminality relate to matters that remain largely undiscussed in the US political realm. They include the following:
* The birth of al-Qaeda is more important than the death of bin Laden.
The mastermind of al-Qaeda is dead, but we must keep in mind how the movement was born and what made it turn against the US and major Western powers. The answer is very simple: a combination of foreign armies on Islamic soil and the collusion of indigenous Arab or Asian governments.
Al-Qaeda came to be in Afghanistan in the 1980s when bin Laden and a rag-tag group of Arab and other adventurers went there to cleanse Islamic lands from Soviet troops. The movement turned against the US mostly after US forces remained in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Iraq war. Foreign militarism and aggression remain drivers of anger and resentment in the Arab-Asian region, and will continue to elicit strong responses wherever they recur.
* The underlying reasons that promote Bin Ladenism are as important as bin Laden himself.
The al-Qaeda movement tried to win converts and supporters by drawing on a series of grievances that are common across the Arab-Asian world.
These include foreign occupation and colonisation, domestic dictatorships, corruption, inequities, and submission to the dictates of foreign powers. As long as these underlying factors remain operative, discontent will persist across the region.
* Normal Arab-Asians rejected Bin Ladenism, and only marginal freaks supported him.
While all of the grievances bin Laden spoke about and al-Qaeda still expresses — occupation, aggression, inequity, corruption — are shared by most Arabs and Asians, the overwhelming majority of them have repudiated bin Laden, who had to operate from caves and secret houses in mountain areas.
The few who joined his movement were marginalised outcasts, misfits and loners of the sort that would have joined weird cults in other countries.
* Bin Laden is dead but Bin Ladenism still lives.
Effective police and intelligence work have severely curtailed the ability of al-Qaeda to operate around the world, yet its small core group led by Ayman Zawahiri lives on, and dozens of affiliated or copycat operations have sprung up around the world.
They will strike again, despite the intense intelligence and preemptive assassination activities underway to prevent that. The many smaller, independent groups and lone operators around the world who were inspired by bin Laden and al-Qaeda are more difficult to track and break up than al-Qaeda itself.
* The lessons of the past year.
The critical development in the last year has been the series of citizen revolts and uprisings around the Arab world that reveal the will of ordinary men and women to respond to their, and bin Laden’s, shared grievances by rejecting terror, and instead adopting a strategy of mass civil resistance that aims to remove dictators and build more democratic governments.
Bin Ladenism will die when the underlying grievances it tries to exploit are redressed through better governance systems that respect citizen rights, protect our lands from foreign aggression and colonisation, and promote decent living standards and opportunities for all generations.
If US presidential candidates were serious about discussing what really matters, they would be arguing about how best to support the Arab quest for dignity and democratic freedom, and how to end Western legacies of double standards that speak of freedom but continue to support autocrats.
Some things have changed in the past year, others have not.
* Rami G Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
© 2012 Rami G Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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