Will the recent killing in Pakistan of “senior” Al Qaeda leader, Abu Laith al-Libi, have any tangible effects on the “war on terror”? Considering the headline news coverage, one might assume so. In fact, whenever any major Al Qaeda operative or leader is slain, the media is abuzz with it, implying that we are one step closer to eradicating Al Qaeda’s terror. But will the death of al-Libi—or any other Islamist leader—make any difference at all?
There was, for instance, all the hubbub surrounding the killing of the head-chopping Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, nearly two years ago. Then, almost every major politician, including President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki gave some sort of victory speech, some highly triumphant, others more cautious.
But if Zarqawi’s death did not diminish Al Qaeda’s highly influential presence in Iraq—it took the “surge” to make a dent—will al-Libi’s death affect Al Qaeda’s position in Afghanistan? Indeed, would the deaths of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden himself have any long-term effects on the growth, spread, and goals of radical Islam?
Recent history provides a lucid answer to these questions.
Consider the progress of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and oldest Islamic fundamentalist organization today. Founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, it originally boasted only six members. In the following decades, in part thanks to the radical writings of one of its premiere ideologues, Sayyid Qutb—whom Al Qaeda quotes liberally in their many writings—the Brotherhood, though constantly clashing with Egypt’s government, grew steadily.
As leaders, both Banna and Qutb were eventually targeted and killed by Egypt’s government—the former assassinated, the latter executed. The Brotherhood however, continued thriving underground for many more decades. Then, to the world’s surprise, the partially-banned, constantly-harassed Brotherhood managed to win 88 out of 454 seats in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections—making them the largest opposition bloc in the government.
After two of its most prominent leaders were killed, after thousands of its members have been harassed, jailed, and sometimes tortured, today the Brotherhood is stronger, more influential, and more secure than at any other time in its turbulent history.
The Palestinian Hamas, itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is another case in point. Founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas has since been labeled a terrorist organization by several governments, including the United States, most notably for its many suicide operations against Israel. Due to Yassin’s figurehead status in Hamas, the Israeli government targeted him for assassination in March 2004. (While the quadriplegic Yassin was being wheeled out of a mosque after morning prayers, an Israeli helicopter launched two Hellfire missiles into him, killing him instantly.)
The result? Hamas, like the Brotherhood, did not decline or lose morale. To the contrary, it went on to win a major landslide election in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, allowing it to claim to represent the Palestinian people.
There are countless of other examples from both past and present history where popular Islamist leaders were either killed (or died naturally), and the only thing that changed is that the movement they led grew and consolidated more power.
Ayman al-Zawahiri summarizes this phenomenon well. Asked in one of his more recent interviews about the status of bin Laden and the Taliban’s one-eyed Mullah Omar, he confidently replied:
Jihad in the path of Allah is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between Truth and Falsehood, until Allah Almighty inherits the earth and those who live in it. Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden—may Allah protect them from all evil—are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of jihad, while the struggle between Truth and Falsehood transcends time (from The Al Qaeda Reader, 182).
According to this statement, which itself is grounded in Islamic theology, Islamic militants are not the cause of the war. They are but a symptom of a much greater cause—the “struggle between Truth [Islam] and Falsehood [non-Islam] that transcends time.” The problem, then, is not men like Banna, Qutb, and Yassin—nor is it even bin Laden, Zawahiri, or al-Libi. Individually killing them off is only treating the symptom—a good thing, to be sure—but it does not cure the malady. The root cause is the violent and fascist ideology that motivates them.