Bin Laden Is Dead: What Does It Mean To The Arab World?
If Osama bin Laden had been killed in his home by American troops, during a covert raid on sovereign Pakistani territory five or six years ago, we might expect a burst of outrage from the Arab world. Such an assault might have provoked vows of revenge and anti-American uprisings from one end of the Middle East to the other.
But this week, we've heard very little from Arab leaders about bin Laden's death and no popular protests. It seems Osama bin Laden had already outlived his relevance in the Arab world, even before last Sunday.
Dr. Avi Spiegel is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego.
Dr Mounah Abdel-Samad, is assistant professor of Public Administration and Policy and Director of the Institute of Public and Urban Affairs at the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. For many Americans, the death of Osama bin Laden feels like the end of an era. Our last decade has been defined by efforts to keep America secure from potential terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. Now the figurehead of this threat is gone. But the terrorist era seems to have ended in the larger Arab world well before bin Laden was killed by American troops last weekend. Osama bin Laden may have become irrelevant in his own lifetime. To discuss how and why that happened, I'd like to welcome my guests, doctor Avi Spiegel is assistant professor of political science and international relations at the yesterday of San Diego. And Avi, welcome back to These Days.
SPIEGEL: It's great to be back, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Doctor Mounah Abdel-Samad is assistant professor of public administration and policy and director of the institute of public and urban affairs at the school of public affairs at SDSU. And Mounah, welcome back to These Days.
ABDEL-SAMAD: Thank you for having me, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Why do you think the move toward democracy in the Arab world seems to have gotten stronger than the move toward jihad? Give us a call with your questions and you comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Let me ask you both to start out with, do you agree that perhaps Osama bin Laden out lived his relevance in the larger Arab world, Avi?
SPIEGEL: I do, Maureen. I think that Osama bin Laden's death is a body blow to al Qaeda. But I think that the history books will mark the end of al Qaeda not by bin Laden's death but rather by the dawn of the Arab spring, as the leading Islamic in Tunisia said, bin Laden died first in Tunisia, and then officially in Pakistan. And what he means by that is that for over a decade now, bin Laden and his supporters have been saying the only way to bring down what he killed hypocritical autocratic dictators in the Middle East is by terror. And young people in the last few months in peaceful protests, in protests that spawned ideological lines, cross ideological lines, they did and accomplished what bin Laden and his supporters never could. They brought down dictators.
CAVANAUGH: And Mounah?
ABDEL-SAMAD: I think his death is an important factor. The fear is that he might be become a martyr for some of the extremists who still believe in his ideology and still believe in some of the basically issues that he was fighting for. Although, to a certain extent, I agree with Avi that the Arab revolution or the Arab spring really, really basically showed people that peaceful revolution is the means to change. And so you could fight dictators, but the real way to do it, the successful way is to do it peacefully. And at the same time, one of the interesting things is bin Laden always said I'm against dictator, but then he attacked these countries, so for example, if you take Morocco, there was some attack on Morocco by the al Qaeda, but very, very few. Very limited. Egypt, there were some attacks, at that point they were not related to al Qaeda. Tourists and so forth. So he talked the talk, but he didn't walk the walk. And so I think I also discredited him to a large extent. And now his death is an end to an era, but I would say he was a manifestation of some of the problems that existed in the Arab and Islamic world. So these problems are still there. They're being solved slowly. But they're still there. So if you look for example at why people would use violence, there are several literature out there. One of them is Ted Gurr who will tell you that frustration and anger could push groups to the use of violence. And we're still seeing frustration and anger within those populations. But now we're -- they have seen that peaceful revolution could make a change. So they might use that, try it for a while, and then deal with it. That's for the internal part.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Mounah, if you would share with us -- have you been in touch with any friends or relatives in the Middle East about this, the killing of bin Laden and what their reaction is?
ABDEL-SAMAD: I haven't about Osama bin Laden but I was in the Middle East just in program, just beginning April 6, '78 and I was in Jordan at a conference that had Egyptian people that participated in the revolution in Egyptian. And there was a guy who lost his eye in the revolution, and was one of the people who has been forming not for profit organization in order to help the population over this. And you never hear anything about Osama bin Laden when they're talking, you never hear anything about al-Qaeda, never hear anything with what they have done to the revolution. It's only -- you feel that the folk was on these youth that took to the streets and fought for their freedom and liberty, and fought for their hope. Which was very interesting. The guy was talking about hope 678 he said that the entire Egyptian population was feeling that they have lost hope. And his mom would tell him, and he said that his mom would tell him, why are you doing this? Just go find a job, get some money and that's it. And he was like, I cannot do this. You are like the ruling party, you cannot tell me this. And so you see, it's a very different mentality am of course these are elite people that we talk to because they are in the best universities in Egypt, and they have been there in that conference. But it's very interesting. You have a whole generation that didn't mention bin Laden, that didn't care about bin Laden, that have their own ideas, their own teaching.
CAVANAUGH: Avi, I want to go back to something that Mounah said about the conditions that led to the rise of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. And one could mention al-Shabab or Hezbollah, or at least groups that have been seen in the west as terrorist groups. Do those conditions -- what conditions were they, and do they, as Mounah say, still exist?
SPIEGEL: Sure. I think that going back to what I was saying about the end of an era, I think that in the '50s and '60s we saw the possibility of nationalism and the rise of nationalism which gave way then to the hope that an Islamic ideal would bring change marked most dramatically by the Iranian revolution in 1979, where young people under the banner of Islam brought down a dictator. And so for at least two decades, those ideologies really had some potential in the Middle East to mobilize young people because there was an example. There was the Iranian case. And I reason, I think, that the Arab spring is so important is it marks the dawn of a new era, it marks the beginning of a time where Mounah just mentioned there's frustration there. There's frustration there, absolutely, at the political system, at the lack of economic opportunities, of corruption, of cronyism, at clientelism, all of those things are there, but now there are now outlets to voice those frustrations, and there's hopefully, and democracy will take work. But I think we're seeing the beginnings of new outlets and new forms of civil society emerging in the middle east.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Arule is calling from San Diego, good morning, Arule, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment. I come from India, and I've seen the Indian history, like thousands of years, the kings fought wars, when they fought war, for them winning is not about winning the king, it's winning the people of that particular region. And in millions, since you look back, the history of the world, actually the last sustainable peace, enduring peace comes by winning the people. I believe the U.S. policy is changing. I have been following for past 13 years, I've been living in this country for 13 years. And the policy is changing but I don't know where there's a broader conversation. I feel that the conversation is so focused on the near, but they're not looking back the history, like 10000, 5000 years back, what does war look like, and how that war is changing today?
CAVANAUGH: You have given us a lot to think about, Arule, let me, if I may focus in on your concept of the idea of winning the people. And perhaps that's not what America in its support of rather old dictatorships in the Middle East has been doing in recent year. But we do need to take a break, and we're gonna take about that when we return. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are doctor Avi Spiegel of the university of San Diego, and doctor Mounah Abdel-Samad of San Diego state university. And we're talking about whether the death of Osama bin Laden is actually the end of an ear, and what might come next. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Our previous caller talked about winning the people. And to an extent, that seems to be what's going on in many Arab nations right now. The people are up -- are rising up on their own but I'm wondering, over the past ten years, in our concern for security, Avi, did we mistakenly prop up some regimes in the Middle East that perhaps we shouldn't have -- we wouldn't normally have gone near?
SPIEGEL: Well, there were concerns about security, there were concerns about terrorism, there were concerns about oil, there were concerns about peace treaties with Israel. And our support for Israel. There were a number of reasons why stability ruled the day. But I think that one of the lessons of these revolutions in the middle east, this Arab spring, is that stability and democracy need not be mutually exclusive. That we can have regimes that are stable. And more to the point, democratic regimes are more stable. And the arguments for example, for Hosni Mubarak, one of the reasons he used to sustain his rule is that if he were to leave and if he were to go away, then al Qaeda would rise up. Or Islamic radicals would rise up. So we see now in the Arab spring, that that need not be the case. That the revolution that took him out of power was not Islamic. It was cross ideological, it was peaceful, and in most parts, largely secular. So bin Laden's death marks the end of the argument, and that's an important argument.
CAVANAUGH: What we've heard across man Arab nations, Mounah, is not necessarily out rage, but more than anything else, silence about the killing of Osama bin Laden. And I wonder if part of that is due to the fact that Arab nations and Muslims suffered a lot because of these terror attacks.
ABDEL-SAMAD: That is true, Maureen. A lot of Islamic -- or Muslims and Arabs suffered a lot through being automatically categorized as terrorists, automatically terrorists as people who love violence, who use violence. And to a large extent it doesn't reflect what the Arabs and Muslims in general believe then. What was kind of interesting is I saw in Detroit an Arab American go into the street and celebrating bin Laden's death, which in a way shows you first of all that they're patriotic, and secondly that they have been suffering because of all of this, and people are reacting in different ways of I think we have an opportunity here. And I have said this before of the Arab revolution or the Arab spring combined with the death of bin Laden provide really good opportunities for the U.S. to start a new page in its foreign policy. There are different reasons why people don't like us in the Middle East. It's not the way we live, like it was presented. It's our policies. We used to believe by dealing with dictators, in 0 sum policies, we will win, the country will lose of or at least that was the perception of the Arab population and Muslim population. Now if we start with policies that everyone will win, that are mutually beneficial to everyone, we will benefit, the other country will benefit, we'll have a more stable policy to deal with, and then we have opportunities. And like Avi said, there are still reasons that are there. So. From, the Arab Israeli conflict is one of the issues that a lot of Arabs and Muslims rally around. And there is this perception that the U.S. is unfair and unbalanced in where it stands of so these are all elements that we have to look at. And we have to be more proactive in our foreign policy, rather than reactive. If you notice, we're always reacting, terrorism, something as -- we have to go out there and start a new trend in our foreign policy, and hopefully we have a window of opportunity now.
CAVANAUGH: You know, as you've been speaking I've been reminded that President George Bush used to say a number of time they hate democracy, they hate democracy. Well, al Qaeda apparently hated democracy. But apparently a lot of people in the Arab nations kind of like the idea of democracy, and I'm wondering, I'd like to get your estimation, both of you, Avi, do you think that we've always over estimated the influence of al Qaeda in the Arab world?
SPIEGEL: I do, to a certain extent. And I'll say also that Osama bin Laden's death doesn't mean the absolute end of al Qaeda.
SPIEGEL: There are still important and significant al Qaeda franchises throughout the world, and apparently the Middle East. So there's the al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, the al Qaeda of Iraq, and the al Qaeda of the Arabian peninsula in Yemen, and the al-Qaeda obviously with operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So al-Qaeda is still there and it's still functioning, but as we've been talking about, for the last few years, the resonance, and salience of al Qaeda narrative has diminished. I think that no politician would want to have bin Laden's pole numbers in the Middle East. Those pole numbers have been dropping dramatically from 40 or 50 percent to 8 or 9 percent. So his resonance has dropped significantly. And as Mounah said, the tax in the last few years have really been localized in al Qaeda, and these al Qaeda franchises are really just that. They're franchises with autonomy, and local operations. So for example, there was an al-Qaeda related attack in Marrakech last week, in Morocco, where 16 people died. 13 of those were foreigners. But it's a local attack, and it was at a major tourist attraction. So it's important to not lose sight of the fact that al Qaeda is still out there. But it's not the existential threat that it may have been.
CAVANAUGH: And Mounah?
ABDEL-SAMAD: I'm sorry. I think in general what we're seeing here is that -- what we're going to see with the rise of democracies in the middle east, we're going to see that democracies will target al-Qaeda themselves. I'll give you an example. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is the current president, has been trying to push and say al Qaeda will take over the country if I step down. The opposition was saying that Ali Abdullah Saleh was arming al-Qaeda to hit basically the opposition. So you can see that every opposition gets to power, one of its first things to do is basically control al Qaeda buzz they don't -- at least from what they have been doing, they don't believe in violence, they don't believe in the same idea. So you're going to see democracy coming down on al Qaeda, and having democracy coming down on al Qaeda has a lot more legitimate meat than having dictators trying to destroy al Qaeda. Buzz dictators heard don't have legitimacy. So these are elements that we're going to start seeing. Now, some of the interesting things is, I agree with Avi, that you see al Qaeda in different areas in the Arab world. They are a little bit different for example than other organizations that we call terrorist groups of so they're very different from Hezbollah from an ideological standpoint, how they're financed, their support in the population and all of that. So we might tend to generalize a little bit. But again we have to take every -- each area, and then analyze it and deal with it on its own.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes. The importance of that can't be under estimated because -- or over estimated, that is, because that's exactly what we have not been doing in the recent past. Let me ask you both. We've been talking a lot about the Arab spring and various populist uprisings in different Arab nations. I wonder, starting with you, Mounah, could you give us an update on where we are in various nations in those up ridings?
ABDEL-SAMAD: Well, Tunisia seemed on track. New parties are being formed. They're discussing the involvement of Islamists in the political life, which is kind of very interesting for Tunisia. In Egypt, there are a lot of changes that are taking place. People are preparing for the election. Unions are starting to deal with the issues that nay have to deal with. So a lot of demands, and it will be interesting to see if the system could basically deal with all of the demands, and to what extent people will be satisfied. Then you move to a lot bit -- countries that are a little bit more violent or a lot more violent like Libya, where there is -- it appears as if there's a stalemate, but in reality, the opposition is still fighting, and Gaddafi, but keep saying he's going to fall, to fall, but it seems it might take a while before he falls, but it's coming, at least from all the indicators. Unfortunately he has been committing crimes against civilians, shedding arbitrarily these cities and killing kids and all of that. I saw I think ten children died or something like that in Misrata, which is very unfortunate. Then it was another extremely violent person, As sad regime, that they have already killed around -- different reports say different numbers, but around 500 people, an uprising in Daraa and Banias, and so on.
CAVANAUGH: Is this in Yemen?
ABDEL-SAMAD: This one is in Syria.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Syria, sorry.
ABDEL-SAMAD: So Syria, the Assad regime is killing 500 people. He's really on a roll. The international community I think needs to step up and try to control him or more put more pressure. Then you see Yemen where they reached an agreement, and the agreement failed, and now they're trying to reach another agreement, but it seems the opposition is putting more pressure so they could get rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So the Middle East is still moving of it's like I'll till you something now, you might hear a news update in a couple of hours that might change that. So everyone is still in this momentum of freedom, momentum of change, momentum of desire to basically have a democracy and liberty, and everything that you want from a decent human life.
CAVANAUGH: Avi, I know that you've written about the coalition support of rebels in Libya, sort of putting a damper on the Arab spring across the Middle East and northern Africa. What is your point in that?
SPIEGEL: It's not simply our support for the rebels, it's how we went about it. The Arab spring I think you can say undeniably is still on the move. However, it's also undeniable that no Middle Eastern leader has fallen since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11th. So to some extent, it has stalled a bit when you look simply at the fall of leaders. And it was my view in the Libyan intervention that one of the reasons to go into Libya was that the revolutions throughout the region had stalled to some extent. And that the reason they had stalled is because leaders throughout the region had seen that as Gadaffi and others became more violent, they managed to hold onto their power. So the argument was being made that perhaps Mubarak and Ben Ali in Tunisia, they fell because they were too weak, not because they were too strong. Soap there was a move toward violence, we saw this by Assad in Syria, and we saw this by Gadaffi, and we saw in Bahrain as well. And there was an argument that by intervening in Libya and by putting Gaddafi down, that we could actually jump start the Arab Spring. And unfortunately as Gaddafi holds onto power, and as he flouts American force, that argument doesn't have much salience. So it was my feeling in order for that argument to have some salience, Gaddafi would have to go. And so it was my view in that case, that the interventions should have been stronger, that we should have gone in with more force to accomplish the mission there.
CAVANAUGH: Let me take you both to the other end of the spectrum when we're talking about the Arab world and the Middle East, and the reason that we've been involved, America has been involved in that region for the last ten years, a lot of people are scratching their heads and are shocked about the fact that Osama bin Laden was found in a large city in Pakistan. Why do you think that that does to our relationship with this government who has been cooperating or saying that they're cooperating with us ever since the attacks of 911?
SPIEGEL: I think it's extremely, extremely worrisome for U.S. Pakistani relations that Osama bin Laden was found in a town that's near Islamabad, and in a town where the equivalent -- the Pakistani equivalent of west point is nearby. It's a town similar to, I sa, Coronado, where there's a number of retired military personnel there, and in a compound worth a million dollars that was built in 2005. And we all know even in Hillcrest or wherever you would live, that if a large mansion goes up, people ask questions, people want to know who lives there. So you can assume that in Pakistan in a relatively small town, that the same would be true. Especially if the people there aren't from there. So it's extremely worrisome and curious that -- it really defies imagination that somebody there wouldn't know about bin Laden being there. But bin Laden being found in that compound also really gets at questions of al Qaeda's future. And right now, in the last three years, there's been a huge debate in the literature, and political scientists and particularly Bruce Hoffman and Mark Sageman two al Qaeda specialists have been arguing, what is the state of al Qaeda? Is it a top down organization? Is it really run by Osama bin Laden or is it really a leaderless Jihad? Is it a series of young people radicalized on their own, inspired by al-Qaeda but with no real operational links. And so the fact that Osama bin Laden was found in a compound in a city, not in a cave, but in a city, it really makes us think more and more about al Qaeda and makes us believe that Osama bin Laden probably was more involved than we gave him credit for.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And again, since now there's no more Osama bin Laden people are asking what are we doing in Afghanistan?
ABDEL-SAMAD: This is something that I was going to go back to the previous question that you asked, and Avi answered. The interesting thing is since they found bin Laden in Pakistan, there has been a lot of talk and some reports even saying that the Pakistani intelligence are not really on board with what we're doing in Afghanistan. In a way, the major and most important element for Pakistan is to a certain extent, its war with India. Or it being perceiving India as the enemy. And Afghanistan with its -- it was its geographical depth. So when Taliban was controlling Afghanistan, they were very supportive of Pakistan, and the Pakistanis really helped them and basically led them to power. So now what we did is we destroyed Taliban or destroyed their geographical depth. So they feel they have to cooperate with the U.S., but at the same time the intelligence community in Pakistan is still thinking of other scenarios where they could retake over Afghanistan or have some political power over there because we have seen the rise of India in Afghanistan. So in a country that has always been in a war against India, and having India in your back and your front on both sides of the border, you really feel the heat or the pressure of so that's why I would say these are some of the causes why they might have been working even with bin Laden. Upon we never know. We'll have to wait and see what was happening. But all these are important things to keep in mind.
CAVANAUGH: Well, also too, just to round things out as we close out, the news has come out that during this raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, there was information captured at that time, computer, hard drives, etc, which our intelligence officials are hinting have a mother load of information about al Qaeda. So indeed this may be a death blow. Is that too hard a word? Not just to Osama bin Laden but to the organization.
SPIEGEL: That of course is the hope. And again, it gets back to the narrative of Osama bin Laden that his followers like to believe and like to tell us on Internet chat rooms, that he was suffering, that was suffering for the cause, living in a cave, outside of communication and ready to die at any moment. And the fact of the matter is, he was in a $1 million compound, and now it turns out with troves of information and CDs and computers. If he were ready to die at any moment and prepared to do so, one has to wonder why he had all that information at his disposal. So the hope of course is that, as I said earlier, there are local al Qaeda franchises still operating throughout the world. And the hope is that the information culled from bin Laden's death and the information that we're able to glean from that, that the end of al Qaeda and the operations and franchises locally will soon meet their end.
CAVANAUGH: We'll leave it there. I want to thank you both so much, Avi Spiegel, and Mounah Abdal-samad, thank you.
SPIEGEL: Thank you.
ABDAL-SAMAD: Thank you for having me. And if you would like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/These Days.