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The war on terror Endgame

By Kevin McDonald - posted Thursday, 12 May 2011

Osama bin Laden was one of the figures who shaped what the 21st century has become. He was key to a type of violence that had never been encountered before.

One dimension was the scale of killing. He and those he inspired sought to achieve the maximum number of deaths. In the 1970s the academic consensus was that terrorists wanted "a lot of people watching". In bin Laden's case the aim was "a lot of people dead". Bin Laden's violence was also deterritorialised. It was a new form of global violence, not aimed at bringing about change in any particular society. His fatwa of 1996 called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, wherever they might be.

This lack of interest in national contexts meant that al-Qaeda, the armed group he founded, expressed no interest in developing a political program and, unlike terrorist organisations formed in the 20th century, it did not create a political "front" or political party. There was no plan beyond a new type of global violence that for a time seemed to be able to federate disparate groups of fighters in countries as diverse as Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen.


Significantly, almost no Palestinians were involved in al-Qaeda. They were involved in a struggle of national liberation, and talk of a global jihad against Americans and their allies did not speak to their struggle for a nation state.

For a time bin Laden was able to bring together a disparate clutch of violent actors in a diverse range of countries. Before 11 September, 2001, this was a well-funded organisation based in Afghanistan. But by 2005 the organisational and financial structure of al-Qaeda had been destroyed, its violence mutating into a search for the extreme that we encounter in the killings led by Zarqawi of Shia Muslims in Iraq.

The rise and fall of al-Qaeda leaves us with a series of questions. The violence that we still encounter, such as the attempted attack on New York's Times Square last year, was a "bottom up" attack, the product of an individual living in the United States who decided to go to Pakistan and seek the support of the Pakistan Taliban for a mass killing of Americans.

If the groups claiming allegiance to Osama bin Laden have been fragmenting over the past five years, his death is likely to accelerate this process. The people who study these networks underline the tensions and conflicts between the groups involved, in particular between Egyptians and Saudis.

But the big picture today is the striking absence of jihadist groups from the movement for democracy that has been sweeping the Arab world since November. These social transformations are being driven by young people, trade unionists, women's groups and Facebookers. Bin Laden's jihad is experienced as anachronistic, a throwback to another time. The exception here is Pakistan, but this has less to do with bin Laden than with Pakistan and Afghan politics.

The key movements shaping the Arab world are movements for democracy. These, rather than security services, will bring about the end of jihadism. And there are signs that the jihadist rump is aware of this. The 28 April attack on one of the most famous tourist cafés in Marrakech, Morocco, where some 15 people were killed in an explosion, clearly aims at disrupting the process of democratisation going on in that country.


The history of terrorist groups teaches us that as they decline their violence becomes more intense. They come to see the world as made up of the guilty and the impure, while violence increasingly comes to replace any political project or demands. Increasingly murderous violence can be a sign of the death throes of such groups.

One key indicator of this process is that the group's violence turns inwards, to purify itself and rid itself of traitors. This happened in the final days of the different terrorist groups that emerged out of the student movements of the 1960s, most dramatically in the case of the Unified Red Army in Japan, which in its final days killed more than a third of its own members in the attempt to rid itself of traitors. There are signs that this dynamic is evident today among groups claiming allegiance to bin Laden.

The collapse of al-Qaeda is one story. But we need to consider what bringing this about has meant.

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About the Author

Kevin McDonald is a sociologist and Research Development Professor in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne. He is also a volunteer working with Iraqi academic refugees in Jordan.

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