Osama Bid Laden: Irrelevance in the Islamic Maghreb

Osama Bid Laden: Irrelevance in the Islamic Maghreb

By Conor Godfrey on May 3, 2011

Osama Bin Laden affected almost everyone’s life in some way over the last twenty years.

Maybe you lost a family member in 9/11, or maybe the 1998 bombing in Tanzania drove your tourism company out of business, or perhaps you lost a friend when U.S. troops raided your house in the middle an Iraqi night.

The death of Osama Bin Laden is both momentous and meaningless depending on how Osama touched your life.

For the families of his victims, his death might bring some satisfaction.

If you are a mid-level Al-Qaeda operative in Yemen, his death means very little in practice, seeing as Osama Bin Laden has not been operationally involved in al-Qaeda activities for years.

What about for Africans in Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Mali or Morocco, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to launch deadly attacks?

Well, I would guess that the death of their figurehead sheik will cause very few ripples for two reasons: one, all politics are local, and two, the Arab spring has smashed the ideological foundation for violent extremism in the Maghreb.

AQIM is a hodge-podge of local players who imported the Qaeda brand name.

I don’t doubt that some of these fighters are committed to the global jihad, but I think the grievances that radicalized them have more to do with their own government’s failings and foreign influence in their home region than the international jihadist agenda.

In this light, the fact that ordinary Arab youths can topple governments where radical fringes have repeatedly failed should also deal a death blow to the notion that blowing up cafés filled with foreigners is the best way to affect change.

In the short term, the turmoil of North African politics will open up space for radical groups to use violence.

However, Osama’s ideology in the Maghreb was mortally wounded before he took a bullet in the head.

He lost the battle for hearts and minds the moment Ben Ali flew out of Tunisia.

The die-hards will fight on: kidnapping tourists, moving drugs from Guinea-Bissau to North Africa, and detonating the odd bomb in touristy cafes.

But without the passive support of those Arab youths that have now found their voice another way, the radical moment will fizzle.

National armies will kill more and more mid-level al-Qaeda commanders, the more moderate Islamist movements will form parties and contest elections, and, one hopes, rising prosperity will help entrench these new political norms.

In Somalia, or on the Arab peninsula, the Qaeda brand still has real traction.

In the Maghreb, Osama was already on his way to irrelevance.