Osama bin Laden is Dead, Al Qaeda is Not

I just finished reading Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, considered by many the definitive “rise of Al Qaeda, 9/11 book”. It was an extremely ambitious project rooted in meticulous research.

Here’s what Patrick Beach said of Wright’s work: Even for Wright — a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who’s long been regarded as a superhumanly tireless journalist — the book is a feat of terrific endurance. He has traveled for much of the past five years, conducted some 600 interviews, compiled a reference library of 150 or more books and inhaled tens of thousands of documents. The guy’s work ethic makes every other scribbler look like a punk. And every single fact, element or category — what Osama bin Laden has had to say about Saddam Hussein, for example — has been annotated and cross-referenced using Wright’s famously meticulous index card system.

The Looming Tower is brilliant on several levels, but maybe its greatest strength is Wright’s remarkable clarity. He always opts for the simplest form of expression, as a result, despite the foreignness of a lot of the content, I almost never had to re-read. Sometimes I chose to re-read a paragraph or two just to marvel at the incredible economy, simplicity, and accessibility of the narrative.

Almost always, whenever Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Central Asia, and/or the “War on Terrorism” comes up in conversation I’m amazed at two things: 1) how strong everyone’s opinions are how we should combat Al-Qaeda and 2) how little those same people know about Islam, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. As just one example, I would guess less than 10% of North Americans could correctly list the “five pillars of Islam“.

Since Al Qaeda hasn’t pulled off a 9/11-scale attack in the U.S. over the last nine plus years, and Osama bin Laden has been killed, the vast majority of U.S. citizens would say our post 9/11 response and current military commitments have been spot-on, but I’m not so sure the world is much more secure than in 2001 despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our trillions of dollars of military spending.

Reading one excellent book doesn’t make me an expert, but here are some of the most relevant post-bin Laden things I learned from The Looming Tower: 1) Arab governments’ torturing and killing of Islamic fundamentalists repeatedly led to increased Islamic fundamentalism. 2) Islamic fundamentalism is an ideology; consequently, it rests far more on ideas than on one or a few charismatic leaders. Our military, by itself, even with its special forces and drones, cannot defeat the ideology. 3A) Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s top officials always hoped the 9/11 attacks would draw the U.S. into a protracted conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have been successful in fomenting more violence. 3B) Osama bin Laden was not, and Al Qaeda’s top officials are not, afraid to die for their ideas. They embrace the idea of martyrdom. 4) Osama bin Laden’s death will no doubt damage Al Qaeda’s finances, but those losses could conceivably be offset by the organization’s ability to leverage his new status as a martyr to recruit new members. I disagree with the “experts” on television right now saying this is an Al Qaeda “deathblow”.

I am not even close to mourning bin Laden, but forgive me if I sit out the raucous public celebrations. It’s far too early to know whether this is a substantive turning point in creating a more peaceful, secure world for all the world’s people.


7 thoughts on “Osama bin Laden is Dead, Al Qaeda is Not

  1. Excellent post. Thanks for those insights from the book. Do you think anything good will come out of his death?

    • Thanks. Lawrence Wright, one of the people I’m most inclined to trust on that question, thinks so. See the last paragraph of his blog post that I just posted a link to.

  2. Wright’s wisdom on this issue is obvious and these bullet points of his you’ve provided are definitely food for thought.

    On one of these though – “Osama bin Laden’s death will no doubt damage Al Qaeda’s finances” – I wonder if bin Laden hasn’t already taken all of his inheritance that he will ever get and put it in some kind of trust fund for other jihadists in the event of his death?

    • Thanks Larry. Just for clarification, those “lessons” are my take-aways from Wright’s book. Others readers will most likely draw other conclusions. As the Torah says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” Or maybe more simply, we hear/read what we want to hear/read.

      • As the Torah says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” Or maybe more simply, we hear/read what we want to hear/read.(RB)

        I think in psychobabble terms they call that confirmation bias. If you want another great read on the middle east and Islamism I suggest “American Raj” by Eric Margolis. I found that book incredibly enlightening.

  3. As you know from my blog I have a different read on this. I think al qaeda’s form of Islamic fundamentalism has limited appeal, especially among the youth. No doubt they have a committed core, but without broad support their ability to act is limited. I do pretty much agree with the points you draw from the book. I think our differences come from: a) I think that most forms of Islamic fundamentalism do not embrace Osama’s radical extremism; b) the youth are more modern now than ever before (more connections with the modern world), and while they may not want to become western, they don’t want the puritanical form of government al qaeda desires; and c) the protest movements sweeping the region open the door to alternatives to torture from tyrannical governments and Islamic extremism. Time will tell, but I think time is against al qaeda. (Note: I thought this even before Bin Laden was killed — I think al qaeda has been losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world.

    • Thanks Scott. The more I think about Wright’s and your positive perspectives, the more convincing I find them; however, I’m not sure how broad AQ’s support has to be for a relatively small core to commit heinous acts of violence. Also, I would argue if we continue to secretly detain people, waterboard them, hold them indefinitely, and then continue ratcheting up the use of drones, and then kill foreign leaders and their family members, even reviled ones like Gadaffi, (you and I know that’s NATO, but the perception is probably that it’s the U.S.), the hearts and minds battle is far from over.

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