Who killed Osama bin Laden? Former political leaders, military brass, and intelligence chieftans are all staking their claims, as if there’s a contest that will crown a winner. If so, it’s the wrong contest. The debates about how much credit President Obama can reasonably take for the manhunt, and the faux outrage expressed by Obama’s opponents, are centered on a single, though significant, death. The much more consequential question is: Is bin Laden really gone?
After all, the death of bin Laden is only one barometer of success against a movement that might have been so much larger than its leader. Al Qaeda still exists but is lifeless; finding its adherents is more akin to whack-a-mole than some existential clash of civilizations. Fortunately, new soundings from Muslim nations reveal that the terrorist mastermind wasn’t so special after all. He only had one life.
A largely ignored Pew Research Center poll released this week points to a simple truth: Bin Laden’s movement is “widely unpopular among Muslim publics.” He isn’t totally unpopular, but he isn’t a rock star and his movement lacks the majority support he once enjoyed across a lot of the Islamic world. In Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, huge majorities reject Al Qaeda and its ideology. Only single digit percentages (mostly in the 1 to 2 percent range) view Al Qaeda “very favorably.”
Every other year since 2003, Pew has conducted polling of Muslim countries. The nonprofit research center avoids the myopic focus of most American polls of foreign nations that ask the self-absorbed question: Do you like us? Instead, Pew has asked a simple question about bin Laden and his movement: Do you like them?
The answer should be comforting to Americans. Though Islamic parties are winning elections in the Middle East, populations are not turning toward the anti-Western violence that defined Al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s death would have meant little had his ideology taken hold throughout the Islamic world. If that had been the case, his death would have only inspired more recruits, more leaders, and a never-ending war.
In 2003, a mind-numbing 56 percent of citizens of Jordan, a moderate nation that is a solid and stable ally, had favorable feelings about Al Qaeda. That number jumped by another five points in 2005. The explanation was simple: Feelings about Al Qaeda’s trustworthiness were intimately tied to feelings about the United States. The war in Iraq made the entire Muslim world look for comfort elsewhere.
Today, the Jordanians who have any favorable feelings about Al Qaeda are a paltry 13 percent. By 2006, Al Qaeda began to stray from its anti-Western foundations and focus its wrath on moderate Muslim citizens there and elsewhere. The Jordanians began to turn on bin Laden, and have been turning ever since. Eventually, the United States wound down its operations in Iraq and adopted a less confrontational posture in the Middle East.
Now, the trends are clear throughout the region; not only has Al Qaeda lost its leadership, it has lost its way. This is a pretty important strategic victory for the United States. It also shows why a week that began with memories of bin Laden ended with the president making a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
Obama’s trip to Kabul to sign a long-term military cooperation agreement with President Hamid Karzai was a return to the basics, to the genesis of America’s interests there. There was little talk of nation building, or anti-corruption efforts, or counterinsurgency. We had strayed too much.
Presumably, future presidents will have something to say about Obama’s commitment of relatively small numbers of troops through 2024. The mission, though, has returned to its roots. It is all about stopping terrorism again, to “defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild,” in Obama’s words.
We know who killed bin Laden. The pivot back to a singular focus in Afghanistan is an important way to keep him dead.
Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem