Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaeda (which is Arabic for “the base” and has the same political connotation in Arabic as in English) in the early 1980s while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the time he was seen as a hero of sorts. A rich man who came to fight alongside paupers for the cause of the Ummah (global Islamic family) and Islam. But Osama was a well educated man and never intended to be “just one of the guys.”
He started a magazine and helped funnel arms in and out of Pakistan. With his persuasive writings and fantastic elocution, it didn’t take long to sway people to join him in his cause. Reading his works, which are available translated into English in book form, it is easy to get swept away by his energetic fervor, which often rests on easily agreed-upon platitudes. Like all charismatic speakers, it didn’t take long for him to create a network of fighters at his beck and call.
The first al-Qaeda attack was in Yemen, at a hotel a number of American soldiers were staying at. Bin Laden was in the middle of a rabid campaign of speaking out against American soldiers using Saudi soil for air bases (apparently having American feet on the holy land was just too much to handle). His rhetoric actually got him expelled from Saudi Arabia and his attack, just a year later, on the WTC in New York got his citizenship revoked. The attack killed six and would be one of the first times bin Laden’s name was heard by Americans.
Later that same year there were explosions in Saudi Arabia which killed many and injured scores of workers. In addition that year saw the Bombay bombings, which consisted of 13 coordinated explosions across Mumbai that killed over 250 and wounded 700. In 1998, Osama helped carry out the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings which killed another 200, but this time wounded around 5,000. In 1999 and 2000, a number of plots in Jordan and France were foiled. Then there was the successful USS Cole bombing. Then of course after that came 9/11. A year later Bali was bombed, in 2003 Istanbul was hit, in 2004 there was the Khobar Massacre and then, of course, the bombings in London in 2005.
Further attacks have been in Ammam, Sharm al Sheikh, Algiers, Kandahar, Mumbai (again), Lahore, Quetta and the Danish embassy in Pakistan. In 2010 and since, the invasion of Iraq created a soft spot for global terrorists to thrive, there is little doubt that these same factions have caused tens of thousands of deaths in Iraq alone. In fact, if you were to investigate all the al Qaeda linked bombings carried out in Iraq you would see that because of the sheer number of attacks, on Iraqi civilians and American soldiers alike, they are not separated by city, but by Mosque, neighborhood and town. This was bloody Muslim-on-Muslim killings that spared nobody on the account of age, gender or race.
Even Reza Aslan points out in his book No God But God that the attacks in London were done in a primarily Muslim part of town. It was intended that way to send a very specific message. Telling Muslims in Europe that they’d better stay quiet, they’d better follow the rules, and they’d better acquiesce to the harsher and stricter versions of Islam being trotted out their way. Aslan also points out that the Muslim world has been undergoing a type of reformation. The Christian reformation was a long and bloody process which took about 200 years from start to finish. As Osama bin Laden carried out his final attacks, this same process in the Islamic community hit about the two hundred year mark as well.
Many Muslims I’ve spoken to, including my own family, feel relieved and even vindicated by bin Laden’s death. The dark shadow that he cast over so many American (and European) Muslims has finally come to an end. Which is not to imply that this is an end to terrorism. Bombings and hijackings existed long before bin Laden and will no doubt continue long after he is gone. But there is a certain level of relief from many in the Muslim community. Not celebration, but a sort of cautious optimism that this chapter of Muslim vilification can start to close now that the primary villain is gone.
In Central Asia, the impact of Osama’s death has yet to be known. Certainly there are other factions, which have little to do with bin Laden yet have masterfully acquired the skills of oppression, dogma and terrorism for their own causes. However, there is a certain morale blow that cannot be overlooked. Al-Qaeda, whose enrollment numbers have been shrinking steadily since Obama took office, might have a fairly hard time holding on if finance and figureheads keep disappearing. Which is, again, not to say that there are not other groups ready and poised to take their place. However, al-Qaeda under bin Laden did have a certain je ne sais quoi when it came to keeping large plans funded, moving forward and well under wraps. Very few terrorist groups have had the same successes as bin Laden’s enterprise. Without that same enigmatic driving force, we could be looking at a slow internal collapse.
Whatever the future holds for the region and for international and domestic terrorism, the landscape has shifted. Arabs and Arab-Americans from Dearborn to Amman were celebrating this fact today, and numerous citizens of various ethnicities and religions have joined in. There has been much debate on what it means to celebrate death or what this particular life really means in the global scheme. But instead of rehashing what cannot be known until the future is past, I will end with a quote I found particularly apt:
“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” ““ Mark Twain
(Ed. note: The above quote, while widely misattributed to Twain, is actually from Clarence Darrow: “I’ve never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” The Story of My Life, Da Capo Press, 1996 reprint, pg. 86. -PoM)