The symbol is dead, but the global network lives on

Even before 9/11, bin Laden had initiated al-Qaida’s transformation into an online network to plan terrorism and spread ideology.

Al Qaida Flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Qaida Flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A decade after Osama bin Laden escaped US forces who had surrounded his maze of caves in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, US Navy SEALs, backed by helicopters, finally caught up with the world’s most infamous terrorist in Pakistan.
The successful raid, made possible by a painstaking American intelligence-gathering operation, represents a vital psychological milestone in the global war on al-Qaida, for every day that bin Laden evaded justice and was free to continue to issue calls and instructions for mass murder was an affront to the American people and to US prestige.
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To be sure, US-led efforts have greatly weakened the jihadi network around the world. Relying on a mix of ground forces, covert operations, assassinations, drone strikes and effective intelligence, as well as an ever-growing Internet-based counterterrorism effort, the US and other states have been able to prevent al-Qaida from carrying out “spectacular” attacks on high-profile Western targets for a number of years. But the battle is far from over.
Bin Laden’s death will have little real operational impact on al-Qaida, since it has become a decentralized global network of radicalized followers, linked to one another by the Internet.
Al-Qaida has become a “worldview” to which anyone can subscribe and in whose name anyone can act. It stopped relying on its centralized leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan years ago.
By the late 1990s, bin Laden packed his Afghani cave hideouts with computers and began using the Internet to promote his dark vision of a medieval pan-Islamic state, ruled according to a fanatical interpretation of Islam, a vision he and his followers call “the caliphate.”
Long before the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11, bin Laden set in motion a process that would lead to the creation of a virtual maze of caves for his followers – an online network where they could seek refuge, plan further attacks, spread their ideology and gain new recruits.
By moving its base of operations to the Internet, al-Qaida and its various affiliates have been able to survive the loss of safe havens like Afghanistan and wait for new opportunities to rebuild their forces in other locations.
They have exploited power vacuums in failed states like Yemen and Somalia, and in lawless regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to rebuild their presence, and are eagerly watching the wave of unrest washing over the Middle East for signs of more failed states.
Al-Qaida’s global strategy is based on the idea of moving back to the physical realm from the virtual sphere.
Its followers have also continued to try and reach Muslims living in the West via the Internet. Countless videos and messages continue to appear on jihadi forums singing the praises of “martyrdom operations,” showing soon-to-be suicide bombers in a state of near ecstasy, and attempting to drive a wedge between would-be recruits and the societies around them.
Al-Qaida is a stateless organization seeking to found a state, the caliphate. It does not rely on one particular geographical location for survival and cannot be eliminated with the brush of a stroke.
The war to eliminate al-Qaida will therefore take years, if not decades, to win. The killing of bin Laden is a practical and a symbolic achievement, therefore, but should not be overestimated.
Disturbing questions on Pakistan
The fact that bin Laden was able to live in a wealthy Pakistani suburb of Islamabad, in a fortified compound, raises disturbing questions.
For years, Indian and Western sources have suspected Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service of cooperating with radical terrorist groups and elements of the Taliban.
In recent years, the nuclear-armed state of Pakistan has moved closer toward the abyss of Islamic radicalism.
In March, the country’s sole Christian minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was responsible for religious minorities, was shot dead by a Salafi militant for questioning draconian blasphemy laws.
The shooting came soon after the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who also questioned the blasphemy laws, was gunned down by his own bodyguard. The assassin was celebrated as a hero by many ordinary Pakistanis.
The writer’s recently published book, Virtual Caliphate – Exposing the Islamist state on the Internet (Potomac Books, Inc.), deals with al-Qaida’s online presence.