For a generation of Americans seared by the horrific spectacle of 9/11, he was a shadowy figure of malice, a disembodied voice whispering messages of doom that even a decade of war failed to silence. In more than 30 audio and video tapes released since the deadliest terrorist attack in history, Osama bin Laden taunted U.S. leaders for their inability to bring him to justice even as he seduced followers with his vision of a holy war between Islam and the West that would drive the infidels from Muslim lands.
Above all, bin Laden exhorted his “heroic warriors” to kill Westerners and Jews as the path to redemption. Often, the complex organism of global jihad responded to his entreaties with acts of wanton violence. For as long as he was free, the very idea of bin Laden remained potent and menacing. But then the hard men with guns came in the night, and he was just another terrorist at the end of his bloody run of luck.
With bin Laden silenced, the overarching question for Washington is, what becomes of the movement he claimed to head? After a leadership struggle, a much-degraded al-Qaida will likely try to remain relevant in the extremist pantheon by plotting reprisal attacks, and the scattered franchises that the organization spawned may well do the same. But the truly existential danger was always the power of bin Laden’s ideas in enticing legions of followers to his twisted narrative of holy war.
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Certainly, the manner of bin Laden’s death suggests that both sides in this twilight struggle understood their roles in what are essentially competing narratives. Bin Laden had sworn never to be taken alive in his bid for “martyrdom,” and Navy SEAL Team Six obliged, carrying its own message that the United States never forgets. Then bin Laden was given a respectful Muslim burial at sea, ensuring that his final resting place would not become a point of pilgrimage for true believers.
It’s possible, of course, that bin Laden’s martyrdom narrative could reinvigorate interest in his ideas of a holy war with the West, inspiring new waves of recruits to join the “global jihad.” As terrorism expert Peter Bergen points out in The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaida, something similar happened to Sayyid Qutb, a writer and founding father of the jihadist movement whose ideas caught fire after the Egyptian government executed him in 1966.
Initial reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death, however, suggests that his once red-hot torch was already nearly extinguished. In his ancestral home in the Middle East, for instance, the response has generally been a collective shrug. Contrast that with the millions of fellow Arabs who took to the streets in recent months to shake off the yoke of despotism and demand democratic freedoms from autocrats throughout the Middle East, or the reverence bestowed on the lowly Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation lit the fuse of those peoples’ revolutions. Polls in recent years have consistently driven home the fact that Muslim support for al-Qaida’s terrorist tactics and bin Laden’s vision of a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate was declining dramatically before his demise.
“Osama bin Laden’s original genius was to create a narrative of war between the West and Islam that was easy to understand and that resonated with aggrieved Muslims all over the world,” Bergen said. “And then along comes the ‘Arab Spring,’ which refutes his narrative that only violence will topple the dictators, followed, with perfect timing, by bin Laden’s death. You couldn’t select two better bookends for the end of the ‘war on terror.’ ”
END OF AN ERA
In launching his “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush famously warned the public that “there will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.” Years from now, however, Americans may look back on bin Laden’s quiet burial at sea from the deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, along with the spontaneous celebrations by revelers who heard the news of his death and flocked unbidden to the White House and Ground Zero, as the closest thing to a “Victory over Terrorism” day in the war on terrorism.
Even if radical Islamist terrorism spikes in the short term as adherents seek revenge and remains a likely tactical threat for the foreseeable future, bin Laden’s fevered dreams of leading a violent Islamist revolution that sweeps fundamentalist theocracies into power almost certainly follows him to the depths. In that sense, the post-9/11 era defined by the “war on terror,” when combating terrorism was not only a national preoccupation but was also elevated to the central organizing principle of American foreign and national-security policy, is ending too.
Of course, even Bush had moved beyond such rhetoric by the end of his second term. Since taking office, the Obama administration has tried, with decidedly mixed success, to end many of the policies most closely associated with that era, and to refocus U.S. foreign policy through a far broader prism. Yet the difficulties and criticisms that President Obama has encountered in abolishing “enhanced interrogations,” trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and reaching out to the Muslim world all speak to the grip that 9/11 and terrorism continue to have on the U.S. body politic and national consciousness.
This article appears in the May 7, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.