By Ali H. Soufan, an F.B.I. special agent from 1997 to 2005, interrogated Qaeda detainees at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 03/05/11):
To the Qaeda members I interrogated at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere in the aftermath of 9/11, Osama bin Laden was never just the founder and leader of the group, but also an idea. He embodied the belief that their version of Islam was correct, that terrorism was the right weapon, and that they would ultimately be victorious. Bin Laden’s death did not kill that idea, but did deal it a mortal blow.
The immediate reaction of Al Qaeda members to Bin Laden’s death will be to celebrate his martyrdom. The group’s ideology champions death for the cause: Songs are composed, videos made and training camps named in honor of dead fighters. Bin Laden’s deputies will try to energize people by turning him into a Che Guevara-like figure for Al Qaeda — a more effective propaganda tool dead than alive.
But it won’t take long for Al Qaeda to begin wishing that Bin Laden wasn’t dead. He not only was the embodiment of Al Qaeda’s ideology, but also was central to the group’s fund-raising and recruiting successes. Without him, Al Qaeda will find itself short on cash — and members.
Bin Laden’s fund-raising (especially through his connections to fellow wealthy Saudis) and his personal story (his decision to give up a life of luxury and ease to fight in a holy war) had brought him to prominence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and later secured his position as Al Qaeda’s leader.
He further cultivated that image by trying to model his ascetic life on that of the Prophet Muhammad — by dressing similarly and encouraging his followers to ascribe divine powers to him. Bin Laden regularly hinted at this when discussing Al Qaeda’s strikes against America and his ability to withstand Washington’s wrath.
Not only has Al Qaeda lost its best recruiter and fund-raiser, but no one in the organization can come close to filling that void. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who will probably try to take over, is a divisive figure. His personality and leadership style alienate many, he lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and connections and his Egyptian nationality is a major mark against him.
Indeed, one of the earliest things I discovered from interrogating Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Yemen as well as Guantánamo was the group’s internal divisions; the most severe is the rivalry between the Egyptians and members hailing from the Arabian Peninsula. (Even soccer games pit Egyptians against Persian Gulf Arabs.) While Egyptians typically travel to the Gulf to work for Arabs there, in Al Qaeda, Egyptians have traditionally held most of the senior positions.
It was only the knowledge that they were ultimately following Bin Laden — a Saudi of Yemeni origin, and therefore one of their own — that kept non-Egyptian members in line. Now, unless a non-Egyptian takes over, the group is likely to splinter into subgroups. Someone like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American who is a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a likely rival to Mr. Zawahri.
Bin Laden was adept at convincing smaller, regional terrorist groups that allying with Al Qaeda and focusing on America were the best ways to topple corrupt regimes at home. But many of his supporters grew increasingly distressed by Al Qaeda’s attacks in the last few years — which have killed mostly Muslims — and came to realize that Bin Laden had no long-term political program aside from nihilism and death.
The Arab Spring, during which ordinary people in countries like Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their governments, proved that contrary to Al Qaeda’s narrative, hated rulers could be toppled peacefully without attacking America. Indeed, protesters in many cases saw Washington supporting their efforts, further undermining Al Qaeda’s claims.
But we cannot rest on our laurels. Most of Al Qaeda’s leadership council members are still at large, and they command their own followers. They will try to carry out operations to prove Al Qaeda’s continuing relevance. And with Al Qaeda on the decline, regional groups that had aligned themselves with the network may return to operating independently, making them harder to monitor and hence deadlier.
Investigations, intelligence and military successes are only half the battle. The other half is in the arena of ideas, and countering the rhetoric and methods that extremists use to recruit. We can keep killing and arresting terrorists, but if new ones are recruited, our war will never end.
Our greatest tool, we must remember, is America itself. We have suffered a great deal at the hands of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and we will never forget those killed in attacks like the 1998 bombings on United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer Cole, 9/11 and the service members killed since then in the war against Al Qaeda.
Many terrorists whom I interrogated told me they expected America to ultimately fold. What they didn’t understand is that as powerful as the Bin Laden idea was to them, America’s values and liberties are even greater to us. Effectively conveying this will bury the Bin Laden idea with him.
Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona