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.