Osama bin Laden’s death yesterday has caused a flurry of activity on the internet and many towns across the US have been witness to raucous celebrations. Not surprising to most Indians at least, bin Laden was found and killed in Abbottabad, 50 kilometres northeast of Islamabad in the Hazara region of Pakistan. Holed up in a compound less than a mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy, the most wanted man in recent history met his hands as Seal Team 6 executed a near-perfect operation in less than 40 minutes. Pakistani news media outlets, ever cautious of portraying the state as an American stooge, reported that there had been a helicopter crash and heavy firing late in the evening of May 1. Given that the city lies in what was formerly called the Northwest Frontier Provinces (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), a hotbed of terrorist activity, this would rouse the least suspicions among locals.
The end of Osama bin Laden, aged 54, marks the passing of a major personage in international terrorism. Born 17th of 54 children to a construction magnate in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s early life was secular and he was often seen in quite un-Islamic environments. However, towards the end of his university education (although some believe he finished his degree in civil engineering, others claim he dropped out after his third year), he came under the sway of Abdallah Azzam and became more interested in theological issues and turned towards Wahhabi Islam. Despite this, bin Laden has no formal training in Islamic law and thus has no standing as an Islamic leader capable of adjudicated on religious issues. In 1974, bin Laden married his first cousin, his maternal uncle’s daughter, Najwa Ghanem. She was the first of five wives (bin Laden divorced two of them), including a 15-year old Yemeni girl. Bin Laden is supposed to have fathered anywhere between 12 and 24 children.
Disgusted by political events in the late 1970s such as the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year, bin Laden went to the mountainous Central Asian country to fight the Soviets. These efforts were funded to the tune of approximately $20 billion through the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Operation Cyclone, which trained and armed Islamic militants with advanced weaponry and gave them critical skills in logistics, communications, and planning. After the war, the fruits of this short-sighted American policy would continue to haunt the world, not only for its training and arming of terrorists but also for the nuclearisation of Pakistan.
The dependence of the Arabs in general but the Saudis in particular on US troops during the first Gulf War enraged bin Laden and turned him against the West. Seeing the presence of “infidels” upon the sacred soil of the home of two of Islam’s most revered sites, Mecca and Medina, bin Laden began to strengthen al-Qa’ida, an outfit that was probably founded around 1988 after he split from the Maktab al-Khidamat, by fostering close ties with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Since then, his network has been responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks, the most prominent among them being the World Trade Centre bombing (1993), the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (1995), the Luxor Massacre (1997), the US Embassy bombings of 1998, the sinking of the USS Cole, and the bringing down of the Twin Towers in 2001.
Quickly becoming a political hot potato, the Saudi Arabian government revoked bin Laden’s citizenship (even though it was his country of birth) in 1994 and exiled him. Bin Laden operated from Khartoum until an assassination attempt against him, probably by the Egyptian or Sudanese governments as he became politically radioactive even there after his attacks on the Egyptian president. Bin Laden developed ties with many Muslim extremist groups around the world and supported them from afar if not directly.
Bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011, is thus a momentous occasion in the struggle against international Islamic terrorism. However, one must be careful not to get carried away in the euphoria of this achievement. According to communications between Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi intercepted by US intelligence in 2005, bin Laden and the al-Qa’ida had become weak and had many of their own internal problems. If this is indeed the case, the death of Osama bin Laden is at best the death of one man, albeit a very important man in the fight against terror. Even if bin Laden’s death meant the end of al-Qa’ida, there are dozens of other Islamic terror groups that have been waiting in the wings to take its place. In fact, many groups wishing to don the mantle of infamy, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, have already issued statements that promised to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. State Department has already issued a “worldwide caution” for Americans following bin Laden’s death, and U.S diplomatic facilities everywhere were placed on high alert.
Some may question the resources expended in trying to kill this one weakened man when there are so many other security threats seeking their opportunity. If the death of bin Laden was merely symbolic, then why not focus on tangible material damage to terror organisations? Bin Laden’s death is important because it is symbolic. Just as Israeli covert operations units tracked down and killed the masterminds of the 1972 Munich massacre, the United States has done so with bin Laden. The message in both cases is clear – you can run, but you will only die tired. The determination exhibited in both these cases gives hopes to ordinary citizens that their governments care for their well-being and will go to extraordinary lengths to avenge them. Inured by the constant news of things gone wrong, occasional news of things gone right are a much-needed morale boost for a world tired of chaos, uncertainty, and the fog of war of terrorism.
Bin Laden’s death also raises some prickly questions which I suspect will be completely ignored for typically short-sighted political reasons. The most important question, for India as well as the civilsed world, is the complicity of the Pakistani government in hiding bin Laden. Pakistan has managed to maintain a duplicitous stand on terrorism so far for fear that too much pressure on the Pakistani government would cause it to collapse and release Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to Muslim extremists. The Pakistani Janus has not gone unnoticed in Western capitals – in 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that Pakistan cannot look both ways on terrorism. The year before that, the government of Tajikistan warned the United States that efforts to catch bin Laden were being thwarted by corrupt Pakistani spies. According to a US diplomatic dispatch, General Abdullo Sadulloevich Nazarov, a senior Tajik counterterrorism official, told the Americans that “many” inside Pakistan knew where bin Laden was. The document stated, “In Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden wasn’t an invisible man, and many knew his whereabouts in North Waziristan, but whenever security forces attempted a raid on his hideouts, the enemy received warning of their approach from sources in the security forces.” Intel gathered by the United States from their detention centre in Guantanamo also indicated a strong pro-Taliban Pakistani role. One detainee, Saber Lal Melma, had bragged about a time when the ISI had sent a military unit into Afghanistan, posing as civilians, to fight alongside the Taliban against US forces.
Bin Laden’s residence, contrary to the public perception fostered by former US president George W. Bush, was not some dirt hole or cave in the desert but a mansion with walls ranging from 12 to 18 feet topped by barbed wire for security as well as armed guards. Internal walls also sectioned off different parts of the million-dollar compound to which there were no telephone or internet lines. Oddly, the ostensible owners of the estate had no discernible means of income. Such comfort and security, and that too so close to one of Pakistan’s premier military institutions, can can come only with the knowledge of the Pakistani government. As a result, the final hunt for bin Laden was conducted without informing the Pakistanis. Indeed, as the chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, said, the Pakistani Army and intelligence services have a lot of explaining to do.
For India, although South Block mandarins have reacted with much glee to the news of bin Laden’s death, the reality of the Pakistani question has not been obfuscated. Even if Osama bin Laden’s death has effectively shut down al-Qa’ida, there still exist numerous groups that are as dangerous, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) who are suspected to have planned the attack on Parliament (2001) and the Bombay carnage (2008). There is no guarantee that these groups will not target the United Kingdom or the United States alongside India. In some ways, the worry in New Delhi might be that the US would ease pressure on Pakistan, inadvertently allowing another group to fill the vacuum. This is not impossible to imagine, given the US track record in Afghanistan in 1989 and now again in Afghainstan and Iraq. Nonetheless, the momentum is with the United States after May 1, and it is only theirs to squander.
Another reason that bin Laden’s death is a mere blip in America’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) is that terrorists have fine-tuned the idea of operating in independent cells in the last couple of decades. As a result, the old-fashioned technique of uncovering one agent and rolling up the entire organisation is inapplicable now. For years now, al-Qa’ida’s strategists, chief among them a man known as Abu Musab al-Suri, have attempted to refashion the group into a global movement that can outlast bin Laden. Al-Qa’ida’s Yemen branch, in its English language magazine, has discouraged American Muslims from joining the jihad overseas, urging them instead to launch attacks inside the United States on their own.
The French have a saying – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Osama bin Laden’s death may seem like a turning of the tide, but the chaos of post-Cold War international politics still remains. There will undoubtedly be recriminations about the bin Laden episode. People will wonder if they are really safe; Pakistanis will question the violation of their sovereignty; Indians will warn of the umpteen other groups that still exist and pose a clear and present danger to Kashmir, India, and the world; fundamentalists will rant about any supposed violations of Islamic burial codes; terrorists will scream bloody murder; academics may even sagely question the wisdom of US foreign policy in the Middle East during the past half century. But all that is for tomorrow, when the chaos will still beckon. Tonight is not a night for self-loathing or doubt – it is a time for celebration (muted perhaps, for one only wonders how many ways Pakistan may have been able to sway the US as they always have and this could have ended differently)…ding dong, the witch is dead.