No kind of martyr

Mehdi Hasan is horrified at the reaction to the killing of Osama by a handful of people in the Musli

At 7am on 2 May, less than three hours after Barack Obama dramatically confirmed that the world's most wanted terrorist had been killed, a press release dropped into my BlackBerry inbox from Anjem Choudary, the clownish ex-leader of the banned British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. "May Allah accept Sheikh Osama Bin Laden shaheed [martyr]," it proclaimed.

A few hours later, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan named Qudos declared: "Losing him will be very painful for the mujahedin but the shahadat [martyrdom] of Osama will never stop the jihad." And in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, head of a Hamas government that is regularly denounced by al-Qaeda and its affiliates for its "apostasy", reacted to the news of Bin Laden's death by condemning "any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person".

What on earth is wrong with these men? How can self-professed Muslims elevate a cold-blooded killer such as Bin Laden to the level of a mujahid, or holy warrior, and shaheed?

A disclaimer is due here: the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims have little time or sympathy for Bin Laden or al-Qaeda and won't have shed any tears on hearing of his death. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project found that support for Bin Laden "has dropped sharply among Muslim publics" over the past eight years. The percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him between 2003 and 2011 declined from 72 to 34 per cent in the Palestinian territories and from 59 to 26 per cent in Indonesia. In Egypt, it is just 22 per cent, while in Lebanon, it crashed from 19 per cent in 2003 to 1 per cent this year.

Odious leader

To add to the Pew poll, I carried out my own detailed and scientific survey of British Muslim opinion: I rang the (Muslim) members of my extended family and social circle. Not a single person expressed anything other than delight or jubilation at the death of the odious Osama. The much-maligned Muslim Council of Britain promptly issued a statement on 2 May, saying: "Few will mourn the reported death of Osama Bin Laden, least of all Muslims."

Bin Laden thus had minority, not majority, appeal in the Muslim world. But - and here is the source of my continuing frustration - he did have an appeal. Disclaimer aside, take a second look at those figures from Pew. Despite Bin Laden's plummeting, Clegg-like approval ratings among Muslim communities in recent years, as of 2011 he still commanded support and trust from, among others, one in three Palestinians, one in four Indonesians and one in five Egyptians. In other words, millions and millions of Muslims.

The cult of Bin Laden has shamefully persisted. Why? One of the great myths is that his enemies were non-Muslims, or "Jews and crusaders"; his allies portrayed him as a doughty defender of Islam and Muslims from the depredations of an imperialist west. The more prosaic truth is that most of the victims of al-Qaeda's terrorist actions have been Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, not non-Muslims living in western countries.

This was starkly illustrated in a study, entitled Deadly Vanguards, published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre in December 2009. "The fact is that the vast majority of al-Qaeda's victims are Muslims," it conclu­ded. "The analysis here shows that only 15 per cent of the fatalities resulting from al-Qaeda attacks between 2004 and 2008 were westerners." Between 2006 and 2008, the numbers skewed even further: "During this period, a person of non-western origin was 54 times more likely to die in an al-Qaeda attack than an individual from the west."

So much for Bin Laden, "hero" of the Muslim masses. To quote from President Obama's address on 1 May: "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." Indeed. He took sadistic delight not just in the image of burning New Yorkers throwing themselves out of the windows of the World Trade Center but in the mutilation of Afghan schoolgirls, the shooting of Pakistani mosque-goers and the bombing of Jordanian weddings.

His is a violent and nihilistic legacy of suicide bombings, beheadings, assassinations and hijackings. Few would dispute that the founder of al-Qaeda was the man most responsible for negative perceptions of Islam in recent years. Thanks to Bin Laden, a decade on from the attacks of 11 September 2001, ordinary Muslims across the west are defamed as "terrorists" and mosques are attacked and vandalised. I have spent countless hours being detained and questioned in the "homeland security" interview rooms at US airports, while cursing Bin Laden and his ilk.

Killing an ideology

So, from a Muslim perspective, good riddance. But killing Bin Laden was the easy part. After all, if former CIA officials such as Michael Scheuer are to be believed, the Clinton and Bush administrations gave away several opportunities to kill or capture him.

On a now notorious occasion, in February 1999, a US spy satellite photographed Bin Laden on a hunting trip, but White House officials prevented the CIA from launching a missile attack after discovering that the hunting party included minor princes from the United Arab Emirates. (In the end, it was on the executive order of the "secret Muslim" Obama that US special forces killed Bin Laden after a 40-minute gun battle in Pakistan.)

Destroying Bin Ladenism is the tricky bit. "The al-Qaeda ideology is bigger than any one man," says Noman Benotman, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and one-time associate of Bin Laden. "The ideology of al-Qaeda is still alive and is still attractive to many people. This is not the end of the al-Qaeda problem."

The hate-filled ideology of Bin Ladenism - based on a deliberate misreading of Islamic texts and traditions and on an exaggerated sense of victimhood, combined with legitimate (and illegitimate) grievances about western foreign policy in the Middle East - will continue to radicalise young Muslim men across the world, long after the al-Qaeda leader's body has hit the ocean floor. Bin Laden is dead. Bin Ladenism isn't.

“I don't know where Bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care," confessed George W Bush in a rare, candid moment in March 2002. "It's not that important. It's not our priority." To be fair to Dubbya, he had a point. Bin Laden the man may have mattered more a decade or so ago, but it was always his ideology that posed a larger threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This remains true in 2011.

Special forces cannot win a war for hearts and minds. In that sense, killing Osama, though cathartic, is irrelevant.