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Osama bin Laden: Fading memory, living methods

world Updated: May 01, 2012 23:26 IST
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Where once extremists spoke openly of their admiration for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, praise for him has now become either muted or nonexistent. Before he died, bin Laden was well aware that support for his group had waned. Documents found in the house in Abbottabad where he lived from 2005 until his death show that he considered changing the name of al-Qaeda as part of a major rebranding exercise.

But few expected the speed with which the architect of the 9/11 attacks appears to have been forgotten by militants. After an outpouring of posthumous praise on militant websites and the release of a prerecorded “last message”, references to bin Laden have become few and far between.

Even communiques from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded him at the head of al Qaeda, and the main al-Qaeda website al’Shumukh al’Islam rarely mention their late leader.

Aaron Zelin, a researcher at Brandeis University in Boston, who monitors extremist websites, said: “In terms of the new primary source releases for al-Qaeda branches and media outlets, there is certainly no daily tribute to Bin Laden, nor weekly, nor monthly for that matter. There is currently very little discussion of him at all.”

William McCants, an analyst at the US government-funded Centre for Naval Analyses, Virginia, and an expert in Islamic extremists’ use of the media, said bin Laden was “not being talked about a great deal — even in al Qaeda’s own propaganda. Everyone seems to have moved on,” he said.

A British security official pointed out that many extremist sympathisers are barely out of their teens, so for a large proportion, the 9/11 attacks are little more than a childhood memory — or even a historical event. Within a few years, bin Laden will be a historical figure, he said, with “the contemporary edge” that intensified his appeal long gone.

But others argue that it is far too soon to consign the Saudi-born militant leader to history.

One year after bin Laden’s death, the main question remains: what is his long-term legacy? Many analysts point to militants’ now-familiar skill with propaganda. Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old from Toulouse who killed seven people before being shot by police in March, filmed his attacks.

Videos emerging from Yemen, showing grateful villagers praising militants for providing services such as electricity, which the government has been unable to provide, are clearly influenced by Bin Laden’s teachings.

There is also a methodological legacy. Mass casualty suicide attacks, complex, simultaneous operations and multiple bombings were all relatively rare until they became the trademark of al-Qaida.

Notwithstanding the loss of support for al-Qaida seen over recent years in the Islamic world, Bin Laden's most dramatic legacy, many analysts agree, is the spread of his ideology and world view of a belligerent west set on repressing, exploiting and dividing the Ummah, the global Muslim community.

But Bin Laden’s legacy is not restricted to the world of radical Muslim activism. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian rightwing extremist who killed 77 people last summer, said in court that he had studied the methods of al-Qaeda.