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Osama bin Laden, U.S. foreign policy & Al Qaeda 2.0

Lance Gallop | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

As of this writing, rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death are once again circulating throughout the news media. This is at least the third time that rumors of this sort have made the rounds, and in all likelihood they will once again prove to be exaggerated. But, true or not, the rumors do provide an opportunity to voice a provocative question: what would happen if Osama bin Laden were to die today? How would Al Qaeda and the face of global terrorism be changed if it’s apparent leader were removed? This is not just an intellectual exercise, it is a critical policy question for those nations that stand in opposition to Al Qaeda.

There is not a consensus among the intelligence community as to exactly how wide-spread Al Qaeda actually is, or how much direct influence bin Laden has, if any, over the activities of individual terrorist cells. Most accept that the relative strength of Al Qaeda is due to its decentralization and network-based structure, rather than its core hierarchy of leaders. Understood in this light, Al Qaeda seems more than capable of surviving the death of its leader, and in deed seems designed to do so. However it would still be greatly weakened by his death, since his personality binds the network.

But this is only one model of Al Qaeda. A growing number of commentators are beginning to see a new kind of Al Qaeda, one which has evolved in reaction to the opposition being directed against that organization by the Western world. They have coined the term Al Qaeda 2.0 to describe this new incarnation of an old enemy.

The defining characteristic of Al Qaeda 2.0 is that the term “organization” cannot adequately describe it. Unlike the original Al Qaeda, version 2.0 is foremost a methodology and an idea. Although its core attributes are inherited from its parent – a puritanical approach to Islam, the widespread use of information technology and an amoral willingness to use any weapon to achieve its ends – Al Qaeda 2.0 has no ties, formal or informal, to its parent organization. Because it is an idea rather than an entity and because, consequentially, it has no definable borders, Al Qaeda 2.0 could take the death of Osama bin Laden without blinking.

The global anti-terrorism strategy of the United States and its allies, even if it is effective against the first generation of Al Qaeda (which is highly debatable), does not stand a chance against Al Qaeda 2.0. The American strategy is grounded on the fundamental yet incorrect assumption that it is fighting a concrete entity, when in fact it now finds it-self facing an idea.

The collective opinion of the intelligence community, recently leaked in The New York Times, is that the actions of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan have aided, rather than hindered, the psychological efforts of Al Qaeda. Based on this evidence it is clear that America is utterly unequipped to wage an effective war against a non-concrete enemy.

There are exactly two ways to destroy a powerful idea. The first way is to demonstrate empirically to its believers that the idea is incorrect. The second way is to replace it with a better idea. These were two strategies that the United States used successfully against communism during the Cold War. When America fought wars against communism, it created the humiliations of Korea and Vietnam. It was only by exporting its capitalism, its ideals and its freedoms to the rest of the world that the United States undermined its opposition from within.

Today, America has again employed the exact opposite of this wining strategy. When it should be reaffirming its morals and visions, instead it tries to degrade them through unconstitutional imprisonment and the use of torture against its enemies. When it should be demonstrating the foolishness of Al Qaeda’s fears, it justifies them by destroying and abandoning Afghanistan and by invading Iraq to create an impotent democracy that lends no confidence to the strength of the system. When it should fight a war of ideas, it can only understand a war of arms. And as the nature of Al Qaeda changes, unless U.S. policy changes as well, it will be utterly unable to cope with an Al Qaeda that, at its heart, is a deadly idea.

Retraction: In paragraphs three and four of my Sept. 15 column, “The incredible shrinking university press” I made claims about academic publishing that, after introspection, proved to be based not on perspectives gained from that industry but on a strong personal bias against academics in general and their ability to make fair judgments. Since this is precisely the attitude I am opposed to, I retract those paragraphs as hypocritical and apologize for their inclusion.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at [email protected] This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.