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Was Killing Bin Laden a Mistake?

LONDON – “He lived a hero, he died a martyr...if they killed one Osama, a thousand others will be born,” says a comment on a Facebook group called “We are all Osama bin Laden.” The group was formed one hour after US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the Al Qaeda leader’s death. That Facebook group already has around 30,000 “likes.” Moreover, there are more than 50 similar groups on Facebook.

Reaction to Bin Laden’s death on Al Jazeera and other Arabic news outlets has been mixed. Some view the man considered a mass murderer in the West as an icon, and his death and burial at sea at the hands of American forces will not undermine that perception in the eyes of his sympathizers. Indeed, Egypt’s former Mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wasil, has already declared Bin Laden a martyr, “because he was killed by the hands of the enemy.” (Sheikh Wasil, it should be made known, has no links or known sympathies for Al Qaeda and he represents a very different Islamic school of thought.)

Aside from the mixed signals online, in the virtual world, the critical question is whether eliminating Bin Laden marks the beginning of Al Qaeda’s demise in reality. Some terrorist organizations have, of course, collapsed following the death of their charismatic leader. The case of Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo (the Japanese group that organized the Sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway in 1995), comes to mind here.

But capturing and trying violent leaders is probably a better marker of the end of such organizations – the chances of such an outcome being higher when such leaders recant their views and call on their followers to lay down their arms. Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Maoist Shining Path in Peru, and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, are notable examples of this.