Now that the celebrations are dying down (and it’s not often that a death is such cause for celebration), we need to be a little more grounded about the implications of this assassination. There have been a lot of claims thrown-around recently – verging from a little naive to downright stupid. Let’s set a few of the facts straight here:
(Note: I’m not going to bother proving that Bin Laden was behind 9/11. If you believe this to be false, please seek help).
1) al-Qaeda is not finished
This is the unfortunate reality that we have to face. Bin Laden was the co-founder and leader of Al Qaeda, but he was not directly behind every terror attack in the world.
Unfortunately, the damage has been done already. Bin Laden’s “contribution” to the Islamic world was the idea of distinguishing between the “enemy nearby” and the “enemy far away”. To summarise a very complex history, Nazi propaganda attributing all of the world’s ills to the Jews was translated into Arabic and given Koranic justifications by the Grand Mufti of Palestine in the 1930s and 40s as part of his alliance with Hitler. This formed what is now Islamic Antisemitism – previously in the Islamic world, Jews had been viewed as weak and cowardly, but combined with Nazi ideology, there was now a European-esque notion of a global conspiracy to destroy Islam being orchestrated by a malicious cabal of Jews (for more on this, see The Flight of The Intellectuals by Paul Berman.)
These ideas then permeated the early Islamist ideology and gestated to the point where half a century later, Bin Laden used them to boost his ailing organisation by declaring a Jihad on the West (see al Qaeda In Its Own Words by Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli). He imagined a “Zio-Crusader alliance” controlling the (as he saw them) “infidel” regimes in charge of the Muslim states. He spread the idea that to truly re-establish the Caliphate (Islamic superstate), Muslims must strike not at their immediate enemies, but those allegedly pulling the strings – the US and their allies.
Al Qaeda has been decimated as an organisation since 9/11 and for many years has not been a centralised structure, but rather a “franchise” with offshoots in various regions (for a discussion of this, see How al-Qaeda Works by Leah Farrell for Foreign Affairs). The reality is that Bin Laden can be quickly replaced by his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Al Qaeda can continue to inspire and fund various partner organisations around the world.
So while this is a great symbolic triumph and may have some long term impact, we can’t start packing-away the metal detectors and arranging flights out of Kandahar just yet. In fact, in the short term, this assassination could well spark a series of reprisals around the world. We need to be weary.
2) Pakistan is dangerous
As Bruce Loudon observes in The Australian.
But after years of the ISI double-dealing with terrorists and now the revelation that bin Laden was living in the heart of a garrison town virtually next door to the nation’s military academy and only a couple of hours’ drive north of the capital, Islamabad, Pakistani authorities cannot expect to escape the sort of questions that are now being asked.
There are conflicting opinions over whether or not Pakistan was actively harbouring Bin Laden, but I am pretty convinced that this is the case. Again from The Australian‘s excellent analysis, Greg Sheridan observes that:
Obama naturally praised Pakistan for its co-operation in the operation against Osama. Frankly, what else could he do? The Pakistanis have perhaps a hundred nuclear weapons. No US president can afford to alienate them altogether.
…It is utterly implausible that any international figure of note could hide in a mansion near Islamabad without the knowledge of the Pakistani intelligence services. Completely impossible.
If the Pakistani government did not know, it is the most incompetent government in the world. If it did know, then it was intentionally sheltering the most dangerous and infamous terrorist of our time.
The double-game being played by Pakistan is a major problem in the world today – it may even be the biggest threat to global security, given that Iran has not yet developed a nuclear weapon and America has not quite lost its dominant position. Pakistan is a nuclear power, so must be dealt with very carefully – but it seems to be slipping further and further into Islamism. If the Pakistani Taliban get hold of a nuclear weapon, the consequences don’t bear thinking about.
Bin Laden’s assassination had many benefits – it was a strong warning to all terrorists that the US can get them anywhere at any time. It was a symbolic victory for the West in general and the US in particular and will raise morale in dark times and vindicate our efforts to rid the world of the ideological plague that Bin Laden spread. Most importantly, justice has been served. That said, we can’t lose sight of the dangers still facing us and must continue to fight Bin Laden’s ideology of hatred and violence wherever it may be found.
(Photos: Foreign Policy)