I have wanted Osama bin Laden to be killed or captured for more than a decade, but when he was shot dead by US commandos this week something was not right. However evil the enemy, there was something ignoble about the public jubilation, the beer-drinking and yelling on American streets at the news of his killing.
In a flash, the country felt as if it had been taken back to the unhealed wounds of September 11, 2001. But no act of revenge, no matter how significant, can bring recompense for or closure to those horrific events.
In stark contrast to American jubilation on the airwaves and in the streets, Arab media coverage was cautious, sober and muted. Where broadcasters on Fox News exchanged high-fives on air, al-Jazeera was solemn. But beneath the attempted objectivity was something more disturbing. Its Arabic language website has become a place to pay homage to bin Laden. Young people from across the Middle East left comments condemning the West, accusing the US of lies and lauding bin Laden as a “martyr” (if he was indeed killed, as many queried) and suggesting that “a thousand bin Ladens were born today”.
Bin Laden is more valuable to al-Qaeda and global jihadism dead. He has spent the past decade in hiding, issuing the occasional statement but increasingly fading from the Muslim imagination. When I visited Cairo last month, he was seen as remote and irrelevant to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that I met. This week they respectfully referred to him as “Sheikh Osama” — a title reserved for respected clerics, which he was not. But in death, he is fast becoming an icon of a new sort.
Without doubt, the US was right to remove bin Laden, but it is wrong to think that his death will weaken al-Qaeda. Yes, a colossal psychological blow has been dealt, but al-Qaeda is no longer a mere organisation, but a global brand, an idea, a philosophy that now has its first Saudi martyr from the holy lands of Islam.
Al-Qaeda can, arguably, become stronger in years to come. After all, the killing of the Muslim Brotherhood's leader in Egypt in 1949 did not weaken it. The hanging of Sayyid Qutb in 1956 produced a generation of jihadists. Bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were both Qutbists. More recently, in 2006 when Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder and charismatic leader, was killed, Israelis thought that Hamas would be weakened. Today, it is stronger than ever, and governs Gaza.