The legacy of Osama bin Laden

Reactions to the reported death of Osama bin Laden have been fascinating. Official announcements have emphasised its historic importance while trying to avoid sounds of glee or gloating. This is partly to try to maintain a sense of dignity and gravitas, and partly hoping to minimise the expected backlash from his infuriated followers.

Bad story management
The story is not yet being well managed by the USA. Rumours and conspiracy theories, including flat disbelief, were and are inevitable. It's hard to understand the delay in releasing video and pictures of the events and convincing evidence that the man killed was indeed bin Laden.

Sensitive viewers can avoid looking, but the sceptical (at least in theory) want to be convinced of the facts. The greater the delay, the more people can believe something is being elaborately faked. Instead, after an unaccountable delay, we were treated to pictures of Obama and his staff watching what happened. I felt like the typical shrink, who goes to a strip show, and watches the audience.

Dead, rather than alive
It is understandable that both the US and Al-Quaeda would have preferred Osama to be killed. Alive he would be an embarrassment, a lure for possible rescue attempts or ongoing acts of vengeance. And where would he be held? His supporters would fear that he'd be tortured and might reveal secrets, if he still has any. Even dead, his body was an awkward problem. No country wanted to bury him, and have his grave become an inevitable shrine for his supporters.

Burial at sea was an innovative response - at least no-one can gather at the grave-site. But this was not strictly in accordance with Muslim beliefs which would limit this to someone who had died at sea. Care was taken to claim that the body was treated with proper respect and according to his religious beliefs. But this decision maximised the potential for disbelief. Considering how many people believe the moon landings were faked, we know that many will want to believe that Osama is still alive, or perhaps that his body is now in Roswell along with the aliens.

Bin Laden was primarily a psychological warrior, who truly understood the technique of terrorism. He achieved a remarkable amount with essentially limited resources, though not always what he wished to achieve. His aims and methods were awful, but his influence was extraordinary.

Manufacturing Islamophobia
Apart from killing many Muslims along with the thousands of other victims of his decisions and influence, he swung world opinion strongly against those of his faith, almost enough to make his initially false claims about Western hatred of Islam come true.

This was new. In previous decades Middle Eastern acts of terror had not led to widespread anger directed towards Arabs or Muslims. Like most other such acts through the years, these were seen as political rather than religious in nature, and as the work of small groups of daft or evil people. By insisting that modern terrorism was a holy act of Islam, he encouraged many to be suspicious of ordinary decent Muslims, creating by his words and actions the very hostility he blamed for his choices.

Secrets of terrorism
Terrorism is an ideal tactic for people who feel very strongly about their cause (even a largely incoherent one), who are prepared to sacrifice themselves and others, and who for various reasons don't have and can't afford, conventional armies and weapons. By the psychogically skilled production of terror and unease, much can be achieved with limited resources. And it remains economical. Once you've caused people to fear what might happen, the fear remains for a long time, even if little or nothing sinister is happening.

Your audience doesn't feel able to conclude that they are safe, only that they've been safe so far, knowing that might change immediately.

He needed the appallingly vast horror of the 9/11 destruction to force the world to take him seriously, and to maintain the credibility of the atmosphere of menace he wanted. After achieving such unprecedented and unforgettable images of destruction and death by rather simple means, he has needed to do relatively little since then to maintain the level of intimidation. He was cleverly able to persuade us to incur huge costs and inconveniences - in a sense, to continue to damage ourselves.

Look at some examples. After the Shoe Bomber scare, when a silly man boarded a plane with explosives in his shoes, even though the bombs fizzled out - since then, in many parts of the world, you need to choose slip-on footwear and remove your shoes on passing through security.

When this was followed by the similarly foolish Underpants Bomber, I unwisely joked that we might now have to remove our underwear at the airport. And it came to pass. Now, especially in the USA, you must either go through a scanner that reveals far more of your body than even close friends have seen, or submit to being intimately groped by a security guard. In each case, not one further instance of explosive garments have been found:  extra costs, delays, embarrassment, and inconvenience, and so cheaply achieved.

A privatisation of war
One of the oddest things about Osama is the way he privatised war. Till recently, wars generally took place between sovereign nations, or at least very large and armed bands of rebels. Without being a sovereign nation, he essentially declared war on America, and perhaps on the west, in such a way that I can't think of any other situation that compares.

Having no territory consistently controlled, and a rag-tag bunch of followers, he forced the USA and others to take him extremely seriously. And in the form of Bush's "War on Terror", is he not the only non-state entity to have the Big Guys declare war on him?  

The War on Terror may have sounded grand, but was an absurd undertaking. It was like declaring a War on Fever, or a War on Ugliness. Declaring war on a shape-shifting wraith, concept or tactic, rather than on any defined and specific group, was bound to fail. He induced major nations to go to war at enormous expense in lives and money, with ill-defined aims, no achievable goals, and no exit strategy; he essentially harnessed the power of self-harm among his enemies.

The terrorism franchise
He also managed to become the Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Terrorism - to franchise the mission so that other people would do the actual fighting, and hitch their local grievances to his major international Brand.

He became an icon rather than a genuine leader, an emblem of serious intent and danger, rather than a controller or even strategist. International efforts actually did manage to clip his wings, to pluck away his middle-management and even senior management structure. But still, rather than crouching fearfully in a cave, he seems to have been living in comfort in an expensive villa, with wives a-plenty.

Where he failed
He failed to achieve anything genuinely useful for Islam or any Arab or Muslim group. He spoke of seeking to bring about a highly conservative revolution in the Middle East, returning to a golden age of a Caliphate and ultra-orthodox Islamic structures.

Recent events of the Arab Spring have proved how unsuccessful he was. There have been and continue to be a series of revolutions in nation after nation, unpredicted by bin Laden or other pundits. These have been conducted by surprisingly good-natured people, greatly enhancing the image of the Arab people, and calling for democracy, peace and justice, and an end to corruption and repression, in a wholesome fashion.

These arose from the spread and use of such western devices as the internet and the cellphone, and exposure to the enduring values dear to so much of the world. Osama had no influence on the process.

What governments will eventually emerge is unpredictable. But I very much doubt that we'll find a Caliph among them.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, Health24, May 2011)




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