After Taliban Baradar arrest, does Bin Laden matter?
Pakistan announced the arrest of the most senior Afghanistan Taliban commander since 2001, Taliban number 2 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. With growing intelligence cooperation between the US and Pakistan, could Osama bin Laden be next?
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He remains a potent symbol of defiance for Al Qaeda's fellow travelers and like-minded groups that have metastasized in recent years: the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Saudi- and Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Shabab in Somalia, and Al Qaeda in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he still commands and inspires many, and can focus anger to murderous intent.
But bin Laden is arguably irrelevant when it comes to his ability to inspire the overthrow of a government like Saudi Arabia's, let alone America's. The deep concerns, nine years ago, that the propaganda of his deeds was going to raise legions in support for a global Islamic emirate have since been laid to rest.
"What everyone is really focused on right now is AQAP [in Yemen and Saudi Arabia], and some people say it shows Al Qaeda is really dangerous and the people who said they were 'irrelevant' are wrong," says Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies the Arab world. "But that's a misunderstanding. What I've been saying is that Al Qaeda, as a political force in the mainstream Arab world, is way down. They're seen as marginal, irrelevant, not attractive anymore."
To be sure, Mr. Lynch says that bin Laden remains a key inspirational figure, and his death or capture would yield dividends for the security of the US.
"When we say they're 'marginal,' what we mean is that Al Qaeda has lost the ability to reach out to the public," Lynch says. But "bin Laden personally retains an almost mythical status: You see a huge disconnect in the polling numbers. Al Qaeda support is 20 percent in certain countries, but 50 percent for bin Laden. I see that as a response to him as a personality. So if he were to fade from the scene I think that would be irreplaceable for Al Qaeda."
Mohamed El Sayed, an unemployed graduate of Cairo University's business school, typifies those conflicting views. While he says he does not support terrorism, Mr. Sayed's feelings toward bin Laden are warm. "He's a good man. Everything he does is good, except terrorism. Osama bin Laden wasn't a terrorist until America interfered with the Muslim world," he said. "Who made Osama bin Laden? America made him who he is today."
Mr. Kohlmann, the independent consultant, says that bin Laden retains his importance. He says bin Laden's latest remarks have generally been praised in the online jihadi chat rooms, though he points out that Al Qaeda hasn't released full versions of the tapes yet, something it generally does after releasing teasers to TV stations like Al Jazeera, which broadcast bin Laden's latest remarks.
But Kohlmann is also concerned that the ongoing possibility of terrorist attacks is undiminished. He doesn't expect them to decline substantially even if bin Laden is neutralized.
"How do you evolve a perfect terrorist group? Competition. Lots of people trying lots of different strategies. And that's what's been happening since 9/11," Kohlmann says. "The vibrant activity in Al Qaeda is now going on in affiliates, the franchise groups. Al Qaeda central, there's lots of activity going on there, but we've taken down a lot of those people and a lot of them are focused on survival. The other groups – AQAP, Shabab, AQIM, have sanctuaries from which to operate."