Monday, November 10, 2014

Killing the leader does not kill the terrorist monster

Question. Which book replaced Fifty Shades of Grey on the USA Today bestseller list in 2012?

Answer. It was No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden. It was written by one of the US Navy Seals on that assignment.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 spawned a minor industry of books, films and merchandise. One quick-witted young American made $US120,000 in less than two days selling T-shirts with slogans like "Osama bin Killed."

The industry got another boost last week. An ex-Seal who claims to be the man who fired the fatal shot into the terrorist's forehead stepped forward to identify himself.


Rob O'Neill gave a great many details. Among them, he revealed the consoling words that he says he speaks  whenever he happens to be meet relatives of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US:

"'All right, Osama bin Laden died like a pussy. That's all I'm telling you. Just so you know, he died afraid. And he knew that we were there to kill him. And that's a closure."

O'Neill has supplied enough material for yet another movie about the killing of bin Laden, apparently. To be called "The Shooter," it will be the third US movie to tell the story after Seal Team Six and Zero Dark Thirty.

The appetite is understandable. He was the man that the former CIA director Leon Panetta called "the most infamous terrorist of our time."

Until the next one. Because even as America fetishises the death of the last infamous terrorist leader, its military and intelligence institutions are targeting the new leader of violent jihadism.

The leader of the so-called Islamic State goes by the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In some ways, he's the successor to bin Laden. He was the leader of al-Qaeda's local franchise in Iraq under bin Laden. When Seal Team Six killed bin Laden, Baghdadi vowed vengeance.

Baghdadi waged a campaign of terrorism against civilians in Iraq, taking credit for the deaths of hundreds, until he relocated to Syria and renamed his group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, also known as ISIL.

Feeding on the murder and mayhem of Syria's civil war and on the finances funnelled to him from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Oman, his group grew in size and capacity.

Baghdadi shocked the world in June when his group burst back into Iraq, routed the Iraqi army and captured Iraq's second city, Mosul, a city of a million people. By chance, this news broke on the same day that Tony Abbott walked into the Oval Office and offered Australia's help.

And this is where Baghdadi represents a departure from bin Laden. Because while the al-Qaeda leader successfully waged a major strike on US soil, he never managed to control any territory bigger than a few training camps.

Baghdadi, on the other hand, controls an area of Iraq the size of Britain. This was the conquest that moved Baghdadi to rename ISIS as Islamic State. He has declared himself the caliph, the religious and political ruler of a caliphate.

For all the neon-lit attention that the assassination of bin Laden has attracted, it was a success but it was not victory. The head was cut from the beast, but it soon grew another.

Even as the West rejoiced in bin Laden's death and the US withdrew its last forces from Iraq in 2011, Baghdadi was detonating deadly terrorist attacks and building his group in Iraq.

On the weekend there were a number of reports that a US missile had struck senior IS leaders meeting in a house in Iraq. The defence and interior ministries in Iraq put out statements saying that Baghdadi had been wounded. Some speculation said he had been killed. And so it begins again.

The over-emphasis on the leader of the violent jihadist movement is misplaced. It's important for the preservation of civilisation that the leaders of the ruthless barbarian army are killed, no mistake. The civilised world needs to disrupt and demoralise and destroy the movement's armed forces.

But we can no more kill off the jihadist movement by killing the leader than an assassin can destroy the US by killing its president. Another leader will rise to take his place.

The most powerful figure in the jihadist movement is a man long dead. Sayyed Qutb is described by one author, Tamim Ansary, as a "nervous, brilliant, erratic, anxious intellectual zealot" who joined Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. The group aimed to overthrow secular government and replace it with an Islamic one.

He's also been described as being to Islamism what Karl Marx was to communism, the philosopher for a revolutionary movement. When Egypt's Nasser's jailed him for a decade, Qutb wrote in prison the works which "electrified" the generation of Islamists coming of age in the 1960s and '70s, in the words of Oxford's Eugene Rogan.

He offered "a message of hope grounded in the assumption of Muslim superiority". Qutb drew together two powerful strands – the revival of a romantic past of Islamic greatness, and a deep sense of resentment at Western secularism and worldly success.

Nasser eventually had Qutb hanged in 1966, at the age of 60. Rather than eliminate him, it only martyred him. Bin Laden, Baghdadi, and the leaders of every violent jihadist movement from Boko Haram in Africa to Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia have been inspired by his writing.

Qutb, like the movement he inspired, cannot be blown up. He and his creed of violent intolerance can only be discredited. Discredited by its own barbarism, and outshone by the positive power of a democratic and tolerant West that lives up to its own highest values.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

No comments:

Post a Comment