Now. the questions | H.D.S. Greenway

Will Al Qaeda survive?

Supporters of Osama bin Laden shout anti-US slogans in Pakistan yesterday. Supporters of Osama bin Laden shout anti-US slogans in Pakistan yesterday. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)
By H.D.S. Greenway
May 3, 2011

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RETRIBUTION FINALLY came to Osama bin Laden at the hands of the people to whom he had done the most grievous harm. In the end it was the Americans, who had let him slip through their fingers at Tora Bora in 2001, who finally tracked and killed him in his comfortable compound in Pakistan.

Bin Laden’s legacy will be that he transformed terrorism itself, from desultory assassinations and bombing attacks, to mass murder on a scale never before imagined. He has been an inspiration for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Muslims whose discontent and grievances he so skillfully stoked, and a nemesis for millions more who reject his version of salvation.

For more than a decade, before 9/11, back in the Clinton administration when White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke said his hair was “on fire’’ over worry about an imminent attack on the United States, the baleful presence of Osama bin Laden had tormented the United States.

The simultaneous bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, and the bombing of the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, were but curtain raisers to the main act: Sept. 11, 2001.

Although President Obama was quick to give credit to Pakistan for helping end perhaps the biggest and most concentrated manhunt in history, questions remain about how bin Laden could have been living, not in a cave on the untamed frontier with Afghanistan, but in urban comfort so close to a Pakistani military base.

There is also the question of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, who some say was the intellectual force behind bin Laden’s malignant narcissism. Can he fill the shoes of the more charismatic bin Laden?

Historians will also question whether America’s wars following 9/11 did America, and the world, more harm then good. Were they, in fact, one of the greatest overreactions in history? George W. Bush’s completely unnecessary war in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, may seem to future generations as an indulgence, a taking advantage of 9/11 to promote a neoconservative dream of transforming the Middle East.

Afghanistan is more complicated. No country could allow a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda complete freedom to sit safe and do us more harm. But there were no Afghans on the planes that bin Laden sent into the twin towers that September morning. And, as we now know for sure, bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been in Pakistan for most of these last 10 years.

Over the years, America’s war against Al Qaeda morphed into a war against the Taliban, which, in turn, is looking more and more to many as a war against the Pashtuns, a conglomerate of war-like tribes living in both Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been fighting against foreign intrusion for centuries.

Al Qaeda will not be defeated by invading and occupying Muslim lands. Al Qaeda represents an idea, and ideas are seldom quashed by military force. President Obama, as did President Bush before him, stressed this is not a war against Islam. But for too many in the West it is.

As Michael Mendelbaum of Johns Hopkins said 10 years ago in the wake of 9/11: “Success will be measured not, as in other wars, by what American military forces do, but rather by what terrorists do not do . . . In this sense, terrorism is more like a disease: a sudden, virulent outbreak has claimed thousands of lives and shocked the country into a major effort to understand, to detect and to combat it. Few of the great killer diseases of human history have been entirely eradicated; but many have been brought under control, claiming only a few victims each year. ’’

The death of bin Laden will not be the end of Al Qaeda. It has metastasized into too many other organs of militant Islam to go away. The effort to contain the virulent outbreak that bin Laden wrought will continue. But as a symbol, the death of bin Laden has enormous value, especially coming at the moment that Al Qaeda’s main message, that change can only come through Islamic terrorism, is being undercut by the Arab Spring.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.