Over the summer we have all heard about the events in Abbottabad in May this year, in which US Navy SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, only a stone’s throw away from a Pakistani military base. Since then we have seen the heads of the United States’ war on al-Qaeda announcing to the press that the organisation that we have feared so much, and which has committed so many acts of terror on Western states, has been virtually crushed. Aside from losing its founder and figurehead, the organisation has lost highly important leaders such as Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Younis al Mauritani, along with many others. The result is an organisation which has been labelled by the White House counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, as being ‘on a steady slide’, ‘on the ropes’, no longer able to launch attacks, and requiring only a few more blows before it would collapse completely.
However, although these announcements have been widely criticised as declaring ‘victory’ too soon (predominantly for overlooking Pakistani and Iranian support, as well as the threat of home-grown terrorists), I am more concerned by the question: does it really matter? You may think it strange to hear this question being asked, when the number of innocent lives killed by associates of this organisation has been measured in tens of thousands. You are right, the ‘inability’ of Al-Qaeda to attack (should one believe reports) after the blows it has suffered over the past six months, is most definitely a huge achievement, and one which may perhaps bring a little consolation to the families of those who have died in countless attacks over the last decade. When I pose my question, I am referring to whether our lives, in a society which is so aware of terrorism from extremist Islamic groups, will actually change at all. Yet I am concerned by the fact that al-Qaeda, in an age of such media scrutiny and dominance, has simply been in the spotlight for too long, creating a legacy for itself, one which people may follow in the future. Events such as 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid have cemented in our society a culture of fear of these essentially small, extremist groups, to an extent which no terrorist organisation has caused before.
When we watch a film or a TV programme, how often is it that the ‘enemy’ or the ‘bad guys’ are terrorists, especially Islamic extremists? From Hollywood’s The Kingdom to the BBC’s Spooks and Brits we are flooded with the imagery of terrorism. When we catch a flight or the Eurostar, our journey is now put through a completely revolutionised and alien experience compared with travel 15 years ago. Even with the threat of the IRA, announcements on public transport to ‘report anything suspicious’ and warnings that lost bags would be ‘disposed of’, are certainly new additions to our daily lives. I am certainly not writing an article campaigning against these security measures, as the last ten years have shown them to be of vital importance, but the impact on society’s conscience has been widespread.
Some would argue that sadly, for some in the West, the last ten years have transformed the image of Arab culture and the religion of Islam into one synonymous with violence, Jihad and distrust. This is wrong, and should never be the case, but after a decade of media focus and examination of groups that strike fear into their audiences, it may be a long time before this view of the Arab world changes. One thing is certain: events such as the Arab spring may help to revise our opinions, but it will take a long time for our memories of al-Qaeda to be replaced. I also fear that, even if the al-Qaeda network ceases to exist, the threat of other acts of terrorism, carried out in its name, will persist. The existence of ‘home grown’ terrorists has been well publicised, and after a decade in the spotlight, could the name and memories alone continue to trouble us for years to come? In Norway this summer, we saw the devastation one man acting alone caused to families and communities, and certainly such acts are virtually impossible to prevent.
Al-Qaeda is certainly not the first terrorist group to have existed. History is full of ‘terrorists’ from the Gunpowder Plot to Serbia’s Black Hand gang, and recently many groups such as the IRA and ETA have caused much violence and loss of life. Yet what al-Qaeda has managed to do, on a global scale never seen before, is to have had such an impact on so many people’s lives and thoughts – and seemingly will do so for many years after it ceases to be operational. For this reason, I feel justified in asking whether the actual defeat of al-Qaeda is so critical.
Image Credit- Sajjad Ali Qureshi