The death of Bin Laden and the Whiteness of the Whale

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid”

This morning’s Metro announces “closure” with a picture of the American president hugging a 9/11 widow. Closure. Barack Obama lays a wreath on the site of the World Trade Centre. CNN’s terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen, declares an end to the War on Terrorism. Closure. Not ‘mission accomplished’. America’s softly-spoken nemesis is buried quietly at sea. Ten years of turmoil, hurt, blood, dreams and tears end with a whimper, not a bang. Closure, remember?

Yet how much room there is for memory in the creeping sliver of sunshine. Like that other great monster that has haunted the American imagination, Moby Dick, Osama Bin Laden, in the eyes of many, took America down with him. Friends – including Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar in Cairo and Sheikh Qardawi – both of whom condemned Al-Qaeda after 9/11 – rapidly became enemies, issuing fatwas against American forces in Iraq. Elsewhere in the world, the same voices that declared “we are all Americans now” began to echo the unease that rapidly spread around the world as the great global Ahab cried “Havoc!”

This clash of utopias was limited initially to a cosmic battle between good and evil in the minds of a few intellectuals, the neoconservatives, and mirrored by their counterparts, the equally utopian and modern jihadis. After the relative lull of the ‘end of history’ – another preposterous claim composed with a mish-mash of Hegelian prophecy and discarded Christian hopes – history re-announced itself noisily into the 21st century.

When Al-Qaeda struck nearly a decade ago, the neocons saw their chance and in their pursuit of dreams, slowly awakened nightmares in the American consciousness. An image was built of this loose group of militants as being a highly-organised international cartel, perfectly described (and subsequently debunked) by Jason Burke: “a fantastically powerful network comprising thousands of trained and motivated men, watching and waiting in every city, in every country, on every continent, ready to carry out the orders of their leader, Osama bin Laden, and kill and maim for their cause”.

In the ten years that have since elapsed, despite the copious amounts of misinformation, echo effects and confused pseudo-analyses, certain facts about Al-Qaeda have come to light. As the likes of Scott Atran and Marc Sageman have shown, Al-Qaeda is now an entirely different phenomena: spontaneously self-organising, self-radicalising groups of young men (the attribution of gender is made advisedly) that have little or no contact with the old Al-Qaeda leadership. A ‘Leaderless Jihad’, the title of Sageman’s book. As Burke writes, this new threat is “far more dangerous than any single terrorist leader with an army…Instead, the threat that faces us is new and different, complex and diverse, dynamic and protean and profoundly difficult to characterise”.

The great whale was certainly real, but its whiteness was in large part a construction: a confabulation that exhumed our worst fears – a backward, “medieval” vanguard, frothing with fury and a thirst for blood – and some of the West’s biggest dreams – a universal civilisation based on liberal tenets and free markets. To misquote Bertrand Russell (on a completely unrelated issue), it has begun to seem that Al-Qaeda (or rather, ‘Al-Qaeda’), like the Cheshire Cat, is becoming gradually diaphanous until nothing of it is left but the grin, caused, presumably, by amusement at those who still think it is there.

Osama’s death will do little to end the bitterness and rage that exists out there. Though bin Laden’s ilk have been largely marginalised in the Middle East revolutions this year (see below), resentment still glows and hurt still prevails.

Let those who take comfort from this year’s events do as they can, but to hope Bin Laden’s death solves anything would be an illusion too far.



As expected, there have been a mass of articles and opinion pieces on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Here are a few of the most brilliant and penetrating analyses that have been released. This page will be updated as better analyses emerge.

First, the Guardian and Observer’s terrorism specialist, Jason Burke, has written a typically insightful article on the future of Al-Qaeda after the assassination of Bin Laden. One of the possible outcomes of the death of the Al-Qaeda figurehead is the possibility of revenge attacks, as opined by security experts in this Scientific American article. Foreign Policy magazine concurs, arguing that “Al Qaeda is still deadly without Osama bin Laden”. The New Yorker’s terrorism specialist and author of ‘The Looming Tower’, Lawrence Wright, analyses the effect of Bin Laden’s death on Islamist extremism in this short blog post.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, discusses the more pressing issues President Obama (and the generally) faces in the Middle East. Staying with the Middle East, professor Juan Cole writes a lengthy and highly informative blog post on the Muslim World’s reaction to Bin Laden’s death, noting that “mostly Muslims denounced him and expressed relief he was gone”. A representative Middle Eastern example was the reaction of the Arabist website, essentially bidding him good riddance whilst bemoaning the length of time it took as well as the many deaths that occurred in the process. Thew Pew Global Forum has also released figures showing that bin Laden has largely been discredited in the Middle East in recent years. The Economist also charts how attitudes to bin Laden have changed in Muslim countries.

The New York times have also created an interactive feature gauging its readers’ emotional reactions to Bin Laden’s death and asking them to leave statement. At this early stage, responses may be heated but over the next few days, this should be an interesting indicator of the feeling of people around the world.

Over at Slate magazine, their correspondent Fred Kaplan (a correspondent who has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East) wonders how the USA can exploit Bin Laden’s death and what it means for relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan. With regard to Afghanistan specifically, the excellent Martine van Bijlert writes some brief thoughts on the Afghan war without bin Laden.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, one of the world’s leading human rights lawyers argues that Bin Laden should have been captured and put in prison, adding that “Killing bin Laden gave him the consummation he most devoutly wished – fast-track to paradise. His belief system required him to die, mid-Jihad, from a bullet -not of old age on a prison farm in upstate New York”. However, the liberal blogger and Atlantic Monthly staff writer Matt Yglesias begs to differ with Robertson.

It’s also still worth revisiting Adam Curtis’s documentary ‘The Power of Nightmares’.

A mind once stretched by a new

idea never regains its original



Featuring WPMU Bloglist Widget by YD WordPress Developer