Bin Laden was trying to clean up his movement’s bloody image among Muslims in the year before he died. This desire to reattach al-Qaeda to the Muslim mainstream is evident in the documents I reviewed that were taken from bin Laden’s compound the night he was killed.
As Wednesday’s anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches, I have been going back over my notes of these messages. I found some unpublished passages that show how bin Laden’s legacy is an ironic mix: His movement is largely destroyed, but his passion for a purer and more Islamic government in the Arab world is partly succeeding. In that sense, the West shouldn’t be too quick to claim victory.
Consider this appeal for Muslim unity in a long message to his key deputy, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman: “In these efforts to achieve unity, there should be a special message directed to our brothers [in Iraq] that stresses the importance of unity and collectiveness and that they maintain a basic foundation of the religion, so it must get precedence over names, titles or entities if they obstruct the achievement of that great duty.”
As I reported last month, bin Laden was so worried that killing Muslims had tainted al-Qaeda’s image that he proposed rebranding the group with a different name. What bothered bin Laden, he wrote, was that “al-Qaeda describes a military base with fighters without a broader mission to unify the nation.”
Al-Qaeda couldn’t make the transition from violent jihad to nonviolent Islamist politics. That wasn’t its DNA. Bin Laden continued to plan suicide operations against America and its political leaders, and he beseeched Atiyah to find “a brother distinguished by his good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.” Basically, he wanted to keep killing Americans but stop killing Muslims.
This theme of internal reform, which would halt the Muslim bloodshed, is clear in a December 2010 admonition from Atiyah and another deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, to the Pakistani Taliban movement known as the TTP: “We stress on the fact that real reform is the duty of all, and to succeed we should look for and correct our actions and avoid these grave mistakes.”
What we’re seeing now in Egypt is something that might be called electoral bin Ladenism. Take the group Gamaa Islamiya, which under its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, made the first unsuccessful attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. Today, the organization has formed a Salafist political party with the benign name Building and Development Party. This organization, which like al-Qaeda traces its roots to the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, has 13 seats in the new Egyptian parliament.
Syria will be a test of whether this post-bin Laden Islamist movement can continue to reject violence or will instead be radicalized by the jihadist magnet that is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The successor to bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to use the anti-Assad battle to rehabilitate the al-Qaeda brand — even though it’s another fight that embodies the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that bin Laden came to abhor.
Zawahiri got little traction with his opportunistic “Onward, O Lions of Syria” video in February. But as time passes, al-Qaeda is slowly becoming a more potent part of the Syrian opposition.
And the battle is still raging in Yemen, the place that bin Laden believed offered his best chance of victory. The United States just decided to step up its drone war there, which is a sure sign that al-Qaeda poses a significant, continuing threat.
So, a year on, it’s a time to think about bin Laden’s failures but also about the ways his fellow Islamists have morphed toward a political movement more successful than even bin Laden could have dreamed.