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Bin Laden’s operational role in terrorism has been downplayed, though he is believed to have been involved in the terrorist plots in Europe last year. Bin Laden may not have played a hands-on role in terrorism but his death is certainly an ideological defeat for terrorists. Notably, a mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri and key spiritual influence over Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism as a whole, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (also known as Dr. al-Fadl) publicly turned on the terrorist group for its tactics. He blamed Al-Qaeda for causing the bloodshed of Muslims by provoking the West and amazingly, argued that the “misery” of the Muslim world and defeats on the battlefield are signs of Allah’s disapproval.
“He [al-Sharif] says that whenever infidels defeat Muslims, there can be only one explanation: Allah has allowed that as a punishment for the Muslims’ sins. Worth remembering the next time someone tells you that winning battles gets us nowhere, that it only makes martyrs of the militants,” writes Cliff May.
Al-Sharif’s indictment of Al-Qaeda was so devastating for Al-Qaeda that Ayman al-Zawahiri had to make a lengthy public response. It is unknown how many Muslims follow al-Sharif’s logic about the theological implications of Al-Qaeda’s defeats, but he is a very important figure in the Muslim world. The U.S. military says that the Taliban is suffering from morale deficiencies and so the Islamic extremist world is in need of encouragement. Bin Laden’s death, which did not come at a time of his choosing, will make enemies of the U.S. question their own safety and rid extremists of their best example of American weakness.
A key question moving forward will be the secession. The logical replacement for Bin Laden is Ayman al-Zawahiri, his second-in-command. However, security measures have resulted in decentralization and other leaders have come to the fore. The chief example is Anwar al-Awlaki an American imam who now leads Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His group has proven very effective in fomenting homegrown extremism and has been tied to several plots in recent years, including the Fort Hood shooting, the Christmas Day underwear bomb plot of 2009 and the plot to blow up cargo planes with modified ink cartridges. He has become an extremely influential voice in the extremist world, with terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann saying that al-Awlaki’s preaching continues to “surface in every single homegrown terrorism investigation, whether in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or beyond.”
Bin Laden’s death won’t end the war against radical Islam, as the ideology was never limited to one individual. However, this victory will bring critical intelligence about Al-Qaeda and other terrorists and will cause a crisis in the group. It will help frighten the enemies of the U.S. It will teach us valuable lessons in how to fight the wars of today and the future. The conflict will rage on but no matter how Islamic extremism spins it, this is an undeniable victory.
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