DAVID IGNATIUS: A year on, al-Qaeda remains potent in some places

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – In the year since Osama bin Laden’s death, it has been a comforting thought for Westerners to say that he failed. And that’s certainly true in terms of al-Qaeda, whose scorched-earth jihad tactics alienated Muslims along with everyone else. But in terms of bin Laden’s broader goal of moving the Islamic world away from Western influence, he has done better than we might like to think.
Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden.
Bin Laden was trying to clean up his movement’s bloody image among Muslims in the year before he died. This desire to re-attach al-Qaeda to the Muslim mainstream is evident in the documents I reviewed that were taken from bin Laden’s compound the night he was killed.
As the anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches on Wednesday, I have been going back over my notes of these messages. I found some unpublished passages that show how bin Laden’s legacy is an ironic mix: His movement is largely destroyed, but his passion for a purer and more Islamic government in the Arab world is partly succeeding. In that sense, the West shouldn’t be too quick to claim victory.
As I reported last month, bin Laden was so worried that killing Muslims had tainted al-Qaeda’s image that he proposed rebranding the group with a different name.
Al-Qaeda couldn’t make the transition from violent jihad to nonviolent Islamist politics. Bin Laden continued to plan suicide operations against America and its political leaders, and he beseeched Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to find “a brother distinguished by his good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness …” Basically, he wanted to keep killing Americans but stop killing Muslims.
This theme of internal reform, which would halt the Muslim bloodshed, is clear in a December 2010 admonition from Atiyah and another deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, to the Pakistani Taliban: “We stress on the fact that real reform is the duty of all, and to succeed we should look for and correct our actions and avoid these grave mistakes.”
What we’re seeing now in Egypt is something that might be called electoral bin Ladenism. Take the group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which under its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, made the first unsuccessful attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. Today, the organization has formed a Salafist political party, and has 13 seats in the new Egyptian parliament.
Syria will be a test of whether this post-bin Laden Islamist movement can continue to reject violence, or will instead be radicalized by the jihadist magnet that is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And the battle is still raging in Yemen, the place that bin Laden believed offered his best chance of victory. The U.S. just decided to step up its drone war there, which is a sure sign that al-Qaeda poses a significant, continuing threat.
So, a year on, it’s a time to think about bin Laden’s failures, but also about the ways his fellow Islamists have morphed toward a political movement more successful than even bin Laden could have dreamed.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.