Russian reaction to the news that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden was somewhat muted because of the May Day holiday, which continued into Monday, May 2. The Kremlin limited itself to a brief statement congratulating the United States for its success and noting that Russians unfortunately have first-hand experience in dealing with international terrorism. Russian leaders noted that they were ready to further expand their participation in international cooperative efforts to stop terrorism.
A number of newspapers and bloggers published some reactions as the day went on. There were two main themes to these articles. The first topic of discussion among Russian analysts was the impact of the successful operation to kill bin Laden on American politics. Here, the analysts were pretty much unanimous in declaring that the killing of bin Laden would guarantee President Obama’s re-election. In this, they showed far more certainty than American analysts, many of whom thought the positive effect on Obama’s approval would not be sufficiently long-lasting and would in any case be drowned out by the state of the economy in 2012. The parallel drawn by Russian commentators was to the capture of Saddam Hussein a year before President Bush’s reelection in 2004.
Second, there was unanimous agreement that bin Laden’s death would have very little impact on the incidence of international terrorism. The argument paralleled that made by many American commentators, noting that in recent years bin Laden had become merely a symbolic figure for the jihadist movement, rather than a planner of terrorist attacks in his own right. Some argued that the death of capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri might have had a greater impact, as he was seen to have a greater role in operational planning and had in fact become al-Qaeda’s de facto leader in recent years. Others pointed to previous Russian experience, noting that the death of prominent Chechen rebel leaders such as Dzhokhar Dudaev and Shamil Basaev did not end the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
While there was widespread agreement bin Laden was the symbolic leader of Islamic terrorism, this led to a wide range of conclusions. Some Russian analysts argued that his symbolic role as the founder of international Islamic terrorism would outlast his death and would allow al-Qaeda and other jihadi organizations to continue their terrorist activity with little disruption. One commentator compared bin Laden’s future role for Islamism to Lenin’s role for Communism, quoting the Soviet slogan “Lenin’s ideas live and are winning.” Others argued that because sponsors of radical Islamist activity in various Muslim countries were oriented primarily toward supporting bin Laden personally, his death may lead to a disruption of financing for radical groups and therefore a potential decline in terrorism.
One commentator related the impact of bin Laden’s ideas to public opinion in the Arab world, arguing that young people in the Middle East enter adulthood with a strong sense of unfairness. This comes first from media representations that the world is unfair in its treatment of Arabs. But young Arabs quickly learn that their own society is deeply unfair. The argument is that bin Laden’s success over the last two decades is the result of having a simple answer to the question of what is to be done about this unfairness. The commentator believes that bin Ladenism as an ideology will continue to prosper until some spiritual leader appears who is able to provide a less blood-thirsty answer to this question.
The obvious answer, of course, is that an alternative answer has already been provided — by the organizers of the mass protests that in recent months brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening to do the same in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact that the Russian analyst does not reach this conclusion, arguing instead that for now bin Ladenism is alive and well in the Middle East, says more about the state of the Russian political system than about the relevance of bin Laden’s ideas for the next generation of Arab and Muslim youth growing up in the Middle East.