The Guardian‘s Jason Burke looks at the terror mastermind’s legacy one year after his death. One of the key themes in Burke’s book The 9/11 Wars, which I highly recommend, is that localism largely trumped globalism in the conflicts of the past decade, with both the U.S. and al-Qaeda discovering how difficult it is to impose a cookie-cutter ideology on recalcitrant states and tribes, and with bin Laden’s organization in particular paying a price for the extreme violence it meted out against other Muslims. But there’s a paradox to bin Laden’s legacy, as Burke’s latest report suggests. Even as extremists in Pakistan and elsewhere seem content to leave OBL in the past, the sheer scale and spectacle of al-Qaeda’s tactics continue to inspire radical organizations and spotlight-seeking killers from France’s Mohamed Merah to Norway’s Anders Breivik.
Individual extremists may have nothing to lose from such tactics, but the organizations that use them are resorting to means that often compromise their ends — killing Muslims is not a great way to unite Muslims against the West, and in general slaughtering non-combatants may be a poor way of demonstrating sympathy with the world’s oppressed. “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,” the Rand Corporation’s Seth Jones tells Burke.
The U.S. got lucky in the 9/11 wars in that the enemy — al-Qaeda — went far beyond the “collateral damage” the U.S. inflicted on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither side won the hearts or minds of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, or Muslims worldwide, but al-Qaeda’s actions lost the propaganda war for them. That war isn’t over, though: if the next wave of extremists in the Islamic world is a little more discriminating in its violence, and if the U.S. continues to escalate drone warfare and disregard the effect of our actions on public sentiment in South Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, bin Laden may yet enjoy the kind of success in death that he never attained in life.