By Nina Chatzistergiou,
Ten years after the death of its founder Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda bears little resemblance to the terrorist network that struck the United States on September 11th 2001. However, it does remain a threat under a completely different leadership structure.
Osama bin Laden embodies the supreme sacrifice and is still possibly the most undisputed idol of jihadists around the world, to this day.
May 1st 2011, is said to be, according to US military sources, the day that Osama bin Laden was killed in a mansion outside Islamabad by American forces acting under the order of the American President. He was wanted in connection to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Although the Americans threw bin Ladens’ body into the sea, to prevent his grave from becoming a jihadist monument, the Al-Qaeda founder remains an example for many supporters of extremist Islam.
He achieved this by learning how to use propaganda to his advantage. He wore a long beard, a turban, the traditional Saudi dress, cultivating an image of humility and sobriety, before choosing to wear a camouflage suit and be photographed baring a rifle on the side. An exaggerated image for a man that was never really close to any battlefield. His tactic was to carefully construct a public figure that would attract followers. This image aspired to present him as a spiritual and military leader of the jihad, and its creation achieved its goal, to recruit fighters.
Despite the fact that he was often criticized for his love for the media, he appeared insightful enough to grasp the importance of major platforms in conveying Al-Qaedas’ message.
Since then the West has spent hundreds of billions of euros trying to eradicate terrorism. And still the jihadists count much larger numbers than 20 years ago.
Bin Ladens’ legacy did not limit to rhetorics, it went above and beyond, becoming a catalyst for global terrorism.
The attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th was an act that defied America and humiliated the West, offering to generations of jihadists a faith that was never refuted, even if it caused him to spend the last years of his life in hiding.
Twenty years after the attack the US is about to leave Afghanistan without claiming victory. Striking the greatest power in the world was not enough for bin Laden, he managed to pull the US in an attrition war, which they basically could not win.
He also understood that he could gain hundreds of loyal servants by turning war zones into training ground and funding fighters from Afghanistan to Chechnya. After his death the extremist Islamists lost their voice and Al-Qaeda lost its first place in world jihadism, to the Islamic State. The rivals engaged in military and ideological war, but the catastrophic schism did not finalize until 2014, three years after bin Ladens death.
Gradually bin Laden became something of a legend. There are no fighters who have known or encountered him anymore. As for his theoretical legacy, it is still debated.
For fact today Al-Qaeda is a symbol, a network, more than an organization. Its branches in Somalia, Yemen, even Levant, do not strike against the West, they limit themselves to local political games and enjoy an autonomy greater from a weakened hierarchy far removed from bin Ladens central authority.
What remains is his face on a t-shirt, his name on the back of vehicles, a portrait of him during demonstrations.