By Abdel Bari Atwan
WHEN I met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, in 1996, he told me his greatest ambition was to die a martyr`s death and join those who had gone before him in paradise. The first part of his wish has been fulfilled. As for the second, that is for God alone to decide. Al-Quds al-Arabi
The circumstances of Bin Laden`s death are not yet clear, but in a 2004 interview with my newspaper, , his former bodyguard, `Abu Jandal`, disclosed that the Al Qaeda leader had ordered him to shoot him dead if ever he was in imminent danger of capture. Abu Jandal spoke of a special pistol loaded with only two bullets that he had been given for the purpose. “He would become a martyr, not a captive, and his blood would become a beacon that arouses the zeal and determination of his followers,” Abu Jandal explained.
Bin Laden apparently died from two shots to the head, and rumours are already circulating that whichever bodyguard was in possession of that special pistol on Sunday night carried out this final command. That he was not captured alive, humiliated and executed in the way that Saddam Hussein was will greatly influence the way he is remembered. If Bin Laden becomes an iconic, unifying figurehead, his death may boost rather than diminish the future fortunes of Al Qaeda.
Reports that Bin Laden was buried at sea are potentially inflammatory, too. There are no circumstances under which this could be “in accordance with Islamic practice” as a US spokesman claimed. Disposing of the body in this way will be seen as questionable by most Muslims (and conspiracy theorists) and as humiliating by the most militant, among whom there will be a desire to avenge Bin Laden`s death.
Al Qaeda`s most active `branches` at present are in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb. Just last week, an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) suicide bomber killed 15 in a Marrakech cafe, and the chaotic situation in Libya also presents opportunities for the group. With its access to the Mediterranean coastline, a vengeful Aqim might be a real threat to mainland Europe.
The structure of Al Qaeda has evolved in such a way that Bin Laden`s demise may not greatly affect its future. The pyramid power structure it initially employed (with Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at the top) has been replaced by a network of affiliated groups, each with their own `emirs`. Roles and power are widely delegated, so that if one leader is killed or captured it will have a minimum impact on the group`s survival. Paradoxically, the benefits of this structure were suggested to the Afghan-Arab Mujahideen by US military advisers during their decade-long fight against the USSR.
Al Zawahiri — who will now take command — is, if anything, more militant than Bin Laden, and is the suspected mastermind behind 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid and London. Furthermore, there is a new generation of potential leaders, some of whom have spent most of their lives as fugitives and jihadis. These include Bin Laden`s son, Saad, and, paradoxically, a growing number of militants from western backgrounds including Adam Gadahn, `al-Amriki` who fronts many Al Qaeda videos, and is from Oregon. n
There is a danger that post-Bin Laden, Al Qaeda may emerge even more radical, and more closely united under the banner of an iconic martyr.
The writer is the author of The Secret History of Al-Qa`ida.
Source: The Guardian, London