Bin Laden Is Dead and His Cause Goes Marching On

Osama bin Laden is dead. But revolutionary Islamism is very much alive and stronger than ever. Thinking that bin Laden is the main problem and his death is the solution is very dangerous indeed and might well intensify the policies that have been leading toward the victory of his cause, though not his specific movement.

It is easy to forget that when bin Laden came on the scene revolutionary Islamism was in retreat. True, Iran was ruled by a revolutionary Islamist regime but that government had failed to extend the revolution overseas very much despite its best efforts. Another such regime, the Taliban, came to power in remote Afghanistan.

But by the end of the 1990s, revolutionary Islamism wasn’t doing so well. The reason was that its strategy was to overthrow Arab governments from within. There had been civil wars in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in other places. The existing dictatorships, however, had repressed them.

So bin Laden came along with a different approach. If direct attacks on non-Islamist governments in Muslim-majority countries didn’t work, he proposed an international movement that would raise revolutionary enthusiasm by attacking the West.

One doesn’t have to isolate a single reason for this targeting. The West represented democracy and modernity, a licentious freedom and secularism that bin Laden and his comrades detested. They also hated Western policies, especially the support of Middle Eastern regimes to which these Islamists attributed their own inability to win.

While Israel was one of these countries, prior to September 11, bin Laden’s movement was more concerned about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It also spoke a great deal about an alleged genocide in Iraq due to sanctions. And finally, it wanted to hit the West to show that it was a paper tiger and could be defeated. And an overarching factor was that the Islamists did not want the West to serve as role model for the future of their own societies though they feared that this was precisely what was happening.

So bin Laden formed al-Qaeda and took the road to September 11. It is important to understand that al-Qaeda failed as a movement but succeeded in the broadest sense as an idea. Since al-Qaeda was relatively small and eschewed political action and base building for the sole tactic of terrorism, it was relatively easy to repress, though not to eliminate entirely.

The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan drove it from its home base and killed or captured many of its leaders. Al-Qaeda scattered but that was not such a great disadvantage given its strategy. From Morocco to Somalia, from Indonesia to Western Europe, it continued to stage scattered, but sometimes very bloody attacks. Yet that was the most it could do. In revolutionary terms, al-Qaeda was equivalent to the terrorists of late nineteenth century Europe, the assassins and bomb throwers of anarchism and Russian social revolutionary tradition.

Ah, but who, then, is the Lenin of our day? Just as the anarchist bomb-throwers were a sideshow — however horrific, bloody, and needing to be repressed— the same is true of today.

Al-Qaeda stages individual acts of terrorism. Hamas, Hizballah, the AKP in Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhoods seize state power. And they do so with the help of Iran and Syria.

That’s power, that’s a threat far exceeding the blowing up of a café or embassy. To take control over the lives of millions of people, to hold assets amounting to billions of dollars, to rule over whole territories and launch full-scale wars, that is power. That is a threat to Western interests, to world stability.

What has happened since September 11, 2001? We can list the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and the casualties. And we can list the following not by al-Qaeda: