The impact of Usama bin Ladin’s death on the morale of his supporters is best analyzed through the lens of al-Qa`ida insiders. This article explores Bin Ladin’s leadership and the impact his death might have on global jihad through the lens of Fadil Harun (also known as Fazul Abdullah Mohammad), a native of the Comoros Islands, who was a key planner of the 1998 bombings that targeted the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. His two-volume autobiography (1,156 pages) is an intimate account of his life story, the inner workings of al-Qa`ida and his role as its amin sirr, “confidential secretary,” since 1998.[1] Harun’s account has a “wikileaks” aura to it, except that he is volunteering the information in the interest of transparency and to exonerate al-Qa`ida from the charges of indiscriminate killings leveled against it. Harun continues to be committed to al-Qa`ida and its mission. Much to the chagrin of U.S. and Kenyan authorities, he remains an active al-Qa`ida operative at large. At present, he is believed to be in Somalia. Some media reports claim that he is the leader of al-Qa`ida in the Horn of Africa.[2] As an al-Qa`ida insider who has worked closely with its many leaders since 1991, Harun’s reflections on the leadership of Bin Ladin, the man he most admired, provide a more faithful insight into how his death might impact his supporters than the speculations by outsiders.

Harun’s account makes clear that the devotion he and other al-Qa`ida members had to Bin Ladin was not driven by loyalty to his person, but to the ideals for which he stood. On the basis of Harun’s account and a study of jihadist ideology, this article argues that it would be a mistake to assume that Bin Ladin’s death represents a fatal blow to al-Qa`ida and global jihad.[3] Such an assumption would risk misunderstanding jihadism on two fronts. First, to exaggerate the impact of Bin Ladin’s death is, counter-intuitively, to diminish his contribution to the phenomenon of jihadism. He and other jihadist ideologues and leaders succeeded in rallying militants behind them not on account of loyalty to themselves, but by empowering them to assume ownership over the interpretation of Islamic teachings of social justice and to take up jihad on their own initiative. Second, it would be a mistake to homogenize the jihadists as if they are all part of al-Qa`ida and as if Bin Ladin ever united them all. As Harun asserted, “al-Qa`ida is but a small group of the Islamic umma’s youth,” and some of them present a liability to al-Qa`ida’s objectives.[4]

“We Do Not Worship Men”
“[The Zionists and Americans] should understand that the death of Usama bin Ladin does not mean that Islam and jihad come to an end. No, a thousand times no. Muslims superior to Usama bin Ladin died…all are heroes who departed [this transient world], but Islam is eternal.”[5] The preceding quotation is not in response to Bin Ladin’s death on May 1, 2011. It is from Fadil Harun’s autobiography, a hypothetical reflection that crossed his mind in 1996, when he was tasked by Sayf al-Adl to investigate and confirm the death of the co-founder of al-Qa`ida, Abu `Ubayda al-Banshiri, who was killed when he was traveling on an overloaded boat that sank in Lake Victoria in Africa.[6]

In the eyes of al-Qa`ida members, Abu `Ubayda had no superior. According to Harun’s account, Abu `Ubayda fought alongside the Afghan mujahidin from as early as 1983, a year before Bin Ladin set foot in Afghanistan. His alias, “al-Banshiri,” stems from his military heroism, enduring the inhospitable territory of the valley of Banshir during the Afghans’ war against the Soviet Union. In the mountains of Jaji, he and Bin Ladin co-founded ma’sadat al-ansar, the embryonic entity from which al-Qa`ida emerged in 1988.[7] Abu `Ubayda assumed the leadership of the Military Committee of al-Qa`ida, the most important portfolio in the organization, and the position of deputy leader to Bin Ladin.[8] It was Abu `Ubayda who oversaw the financial investments that funded al-Qa`ida’s military projects and provided the vision and strategy for its operations.[9] Bin Ladin recognized Abu `Ubayda’s seniority; it was to him that Bin Ladin turned before taking any decision on behalf of al-Qa`ida.[10]

Notwithstanding Abu `Ubayda’s critical role in al-Qa`ida, especially his untimely death when he was preoccupied with strengthening al-Qa`ida’s presence in East Africa in an effort to strike against U.S. and Israeli interests in the region, the work of al-Qa`ida continued despite his passing. Harun appreciated that Abu `Ubayda’s death would negatively impact al-Qa`ida’s activities, but he was equally certain that it would not bring it to a halt: “We do not worship men,” he wrote, “whenever a leader dies, another will succeed him,” by which he means that unlike mortals, ideals are eternal.[11]

It was Harun who would play a key role in attacking U.S. interests in East Africa. He led the operational side of the attacks that targeted the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998.[12] When Harun returned to Afghanistan after he completed his mission, the Advisory Council (majlis al-shura) of al-Qa`ida appointed him as its “confidential secretary,” thereby entrusting him with sensitive information pertaining to al-Qa`ida’s operations, including the planning of the 9/11 attacks. It did not cross Harun’s mind that his new position afforded him any entitlements; on the contrary, “I understand very well al-Qa`ida’s working [philosophy]: there are no ranks (manasib) [assigned to high dignitaries], but rather designations (musammayat) [denoting specific tasks]. Al-Qa`ida values the work of the individual and his contributions to the umma.”[13]

On Leadership
Al-Qa`ida’s ideology seeks to effect a divorce from all forms of political and religious hierarchies. Far from seeking to instill a spirit of obedience to individual leaders in the minds of their followers, al-Qa`ida (and other jihadist) ideologues promote obedience to ideals that outlive leaders and indeed cannot be tainted by corrupt leaders, including those who recant their jihadist views. This spirit characterizes Bin Ladin’s statements; in one of them, he called on the youth to rebel against authorities: “wherever you are,” he said, “you must roll up your sleeves, prepare for jihad, and follow the truth. Be sure not to follow those who are victims of their own desires and are a burden on the land or those who submit to the oppressors, spread lies about you, and hold you back from the blessed jihad.”[14]

The same spirit of dedication to ideals rather than to individual leaders is echoed by other jihadist leaders. For example, in response to Dr. Fadl’s recantation, Ayman al-Zawahiri warned his fellow jihadists that in the event that he (or any other al-Qa`ida leader) should fall captive and be forced to renege on his previously avowed jihadist principles, jihadists should ignore any instructions that he might thereafter give.[15] Similarly, al-Qa`ida operative Abu Yahya al-Libi promotes loyalty to ideals rather than blind imitation of individual leaders: “we have never pursued the truth through [emulating the behavior] of men irrespective of their excellence and high ranking. Rather, the orbit in which our cardinal [principles] rotate is guided by [divine] proof.”[16]

This commitment to jihadist ideals is clearly reflected in Harun’s account: both his profound respect for Bin Ladin and his ability to separate the man from the ideals he represents reflect the limited scope assigned to individual leadership in the ideology of al-Qa`ida. Harun’s affection to Bin Ladin is unmistakable: he relates that the best day of his life was when he first met Bin Ladin in 1992,[17] and takes pride in the fact that Bin Ladin entrusted him with shaving his head.[18] Yet Harun is also keen to stress that it is because Bin Ladin stood up to “the infidel aggressors of his time” that he admired him; more importantly, for sacrificing his wealth in the service of principles. “He was given the keys [to a safe filled with treasure], yet he chose to sacrifice his wealth in the service of God’s path [rather than indulge in the pleasures of this transient] world,” Harun said.[19] Harun is thus categorical that his loyalty is not to Bin Ladin the person but to the ideals he espouses:

“The reader may well ask me as to my opinion concerning Usama bin Ladin [and his status as leader]. The answer is that I believe him to be a man like other Muslims. He is [subject] to being wrong and [open to being] right. He raised the banner of jihad against the infidels who have attacked us and occupied our countries…so we entered into a covenant with him (ta`ahhadna ma`ahu) [to commit to jihad]. He is not an imam and there is no bay`a (pledge of allegiance) between us and him as people generally assume. It is a ta`ahhud (covenant). Whoever wishes to leave al-Qa`ida is free to do so. I can at any time withdraw my ta`ahhud if [I come to believe that] what we’ve agreed upon has changed or if I see that the politics of al-Qa`ida’s leadership no longer serves the interest of the umma.”[20]

In effect, the paradigm al-Qa`ida and other jihadist ideologues and leaders have promoted is premised not on loyalty to individual leaders, but on ideals that seek to right wrongs they perceive to be committed against Muslims. When jihadist ideologues argue that jihadists today are waging a defensive jihad (jihad al-daf`) and therefore jihad is the individual duty (fard `ayn) of every Muslim, they do not claim any credit for articulating original legal doctrines. Instead, they believe they are merely highlighting classical/medieval legal doctrines that provide oppressed Muslims today with alternatives to the political processes that serve their unjust leaders and the Western powers that support them. In doing so, jihadist leaders have downplayed the status of religious and political leadership, including their own, and empowered jihadists to assume ownership over the interpretation of Islamic teachings of social justice and to take up jihad on their own initiative.

The Symbolism of Bin Ladin’s Death
Notwithstanding the skill and valor that went into the Navy SEALs’ operation, in the minds of Bin Ladin’s supporters, the sophistication of the mission is seen as a testament to the heroism of Bin Ladin whose “martyrdom” will now serve to advance the cause for which he died. In the eyes of jihadists, as far as an ending to the career of a mujahid is concerned, Bin Ladin could not have hoped for a more honorable death or made a better career move. As `Abd al-Hayy Yusuf, a religious scholar in Sudan, put it, the manner in which Bin Ladin was killed and the response of the American public to his death represents the ultimate honor to be bestowed upon a mujahid. “It was an ideal death,” he proudly stated. “It is astonishing that a nation that sings the praises of freedom and [claims to enforce] human rights, [its people] should walk out joyfully to the streets [to celebrate] that they killed a man; an entire nation confronting a single man.” Yusuf concluded that “this does not in any way indicate that America is powerful nor that it possesses exceptional strengths; rather it shows that it is weak, base, despicable and lacking any values and morals.”[21]

Similar sentiments are echoed in al-Qa`ida’s official announcement confirming Bin Ladin’s death, with an additional reminder to those who overestimate the impact Bin Ladin’s death might have on al-Qa`ida and its mission:

“Shaykh Usama bin Ladin was not a prophet who was sent in the 20th century. Rather, he was [merely] a Muslim man from this illustrious umma. He had an unwavering commitment [to the teachings] of the Qur’an; he sold his life in this world in return for the eternity in the hereafter. He sought [martyrdom] and we assume that he achieved it. God elevated Bin Ladin’s rank [among men] on account of [his struggle to] elevate his religion; God bestowed upon him esteem on account of the esteem he held for God’s Word. Through Bin Ladin, God instilled fear in unbelieving nations, because he feared nobody but God…The university of faith, Qur’an and jihad that graduated Shaykh Usama bin Ladin has not and will not shut its doors [and will continue to graduate men like him and superior to him].”[22]

For jihadist ideology students who can relate to the ideals that move the jihadists, it would be difficult to fathom that Bin Ladin’s “martyrdom” will weaken the zeal of his supporters. As Harun explained, al-Qa`ida did not create a generation of men who worship men. Rather, it created “God’s lions on earth,” a generation of “jihadists without borders,” and jihad is their “tourism.”[23] Yet it is important to distinguish between correlation and causality. If al-Qa`ida’s narrative today is weakened, it will have far less to do with Bin Ladin’s death than with the fact that the uprisings in the Middle East may prove that in the long-term non-violence rather than jihad holds the key to bringing down the dictatorships that gave birth to the phenomenon of jihadism.

Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.

[1] Fadil Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam: Qissat Fadil Harun (War Against Islam: The Story of Fadil Harun), volume 1, January 2009. The author would like to thank colleagues at the Combating Terrorism Center who brought Harun’s autobiography to her attention and to Vahid Brown for the fruitful conversations shared with the author. The author would also like to thank colleagues at SOCOM for their assistance with materials relevant to Harun’s autobiography.

[2] OSC, November 21, 2009.

[3] On jihadist ideology, see Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (New York/London: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2010).

[4] Harun, p. 13. Distinguishing al-Qa`ida from the broader jihadist landscape is part of a larger forthcoming project by this author.

[5] Harun, p. 265.

[6] Abu `Ubayda al-Banshiri’s real name is `Ali Amin al-Rashidi. According to Abu `Ubayda’s brother-in-law, whom Harun quotes, the boat sank on May 21, 1996, within 13 kilometers of reaching Mwanza, Tanzania. See Harun, p. 261.

[7] The meaning of “ma’sadat al-ansar” designates a breeding ground for powerful men, fearless like lions, who are the “helpers” of fellow Muslims. “Helpers” invokes the early generation of Muslims of Medina who helped the Prophet Muhammad and the muhajirun (émigrés) who were persecuted in Mecca on account of their belief in the One God.

[8] Harun, pp. 65, 91.

[9] Ibid., pp. 146, 187.

[10] Ibid., p. 91.

[11] Ibid., p. 265.

[12] Harun answered to Abu Muhammad al-Misri, but he was in charge of all the logistics that went into the operation.

[13] Harun, p. 380.

[14] Bruce Lawrence ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London/New York: Verso, 2005), p. 208.

[15] Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Tabri’a, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, available at

[16] Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Tabdid li-Abatil Wathiqat al-Tarshid, available at

[17] Harun, p. 109.

[18] Ibid., p. 393.

[19] Ibid., p. 110.

[20] Ibid., p. 57.

[21] This statement can be viewed on YouTube at

[22] This statement is available at

[23] Harun, pp. 279, 146, 153, 56, 154. “Tourism” should be understood in the context of the hadith that extols Muslims to leave their homes to take up jihad in the service of their religion (siyahatu ummati al-jihad). In Harun’s parlance, al-Qa`ida’s jihadists are ready to fight anywhere.

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