The death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is a major blow to the international terrorist network. As an iconic figure of global jihad, Bin Laden was able to inspire a whole generation of radical Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of Islam. In Pakistan alone, some 35,000 fellow Muslims have become a victim of the killing spree he ignited and justified sadistically through several dozen audio and video messages released since 2001. Whoever replaces Bin Laden as a leader of al-Qaeda will never possess the charismatic value he acquired through a 30-year stint in directing international jihad from the early days of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Yet, out of jubilation over the death of the world’s Most Wanted Terrorist, nations and countries must not get carried away—as international effort to crush the ghost of jihad unleashed upon the world by Bin Laden and his jihadi comrades is far from over. The spring revolutions in Arabia—the place from where the senior leadership of al-Qaeda principally hailed, including al-Qaeda’s number two, chief ideologue and likely successor, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri—are a rebuke to Bin Laden’s radical discourse grounded in the revival of a literalist caliphate rule across the Muslim world and beyond. Still, among many Muslim populations—from Yemen to Somalia to Pakistan and Muslims residing in Western countries—the messianic creed that he propagated has found considerable following.
Thus, the answer to the most important question after Bin Laden’s demise—is the world we live in safer now?—is neither categorically ‘yes’ nor strictly ‘no.’ Other questions being raised in global media are of subsidiary significance, especially ones about Pakistan’s role in the US operation to hunt down al-Qaeda leader and its security establishment’s awareness or ignorance about the whereabouts of Bin Laden’s hideout in the vicinity of Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul.
President Obama, President Zardari and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in their respective statements have all vaguely referred to Pakistan’s years-long counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States having eventually facilitated the killing of al-Qaeda leader. For its part, Pakistan’s Foreign Office was quick to reconfirm US assertion that the operation to capture or kill Bin Laden was undertaken by US forces alone, as part of a “declared” US policy of hunting down top al-Qaeda leaders on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list wherever they are.
As to why the Obama Administration did not take Pakistani civilian and security leadership into confidence before undertaking the operation to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader, it would be premature to speculate and pinpoint the existence of a serious trust deficit in US-Pakistan counter-terrorism relations as a principal reason for the purpose. Until the Inter-Services Public Relations, the press department of Pakistan Army, breaks its silence on the matter, such speculative opinions will continue to gain greater salience in Indian and Western media’s reporting and analysis of the operation in coming days.
For argument’s sake, however, a couple of more reasons can be given as a logical explanation of why the US would have preferred acting alone in this most sensitive instance of its global War on Terror project. First, only a handful of top US civilian and military officials were made aware of the operation before it was undertaken. It was only after the operation was over and President Obama was getting ready to make the press statement that a few Congressional leaders were informed about its successful outcome. So, if the Obama Administration practised so much caution back home, why should it be expected to share operational information with Pakistani leadership? Success in counter-terrorism, especially when the issue is of nabbing the mastermind of 9/11, should naturally entail that the entire course until the accomplishment of the targeted goal remain utterly secretive.
Second, in the last over decade and a half, American and Pakistani intelligence and security operatives have closely cooperated in nabbing several high profile terrorists—from Ramzi Yousaf in 1995 to Mullah Baradar early last year. Why should there be no cooperation at all in different in Bin Laden’s case? As part of its covert counter-terrorism understanding with the United States, Pakistan’s security establishment may have only played its part as a facilitator, allowing US intelligence to pursue the leads independently since 2007 and let the specially-trained unit of US Navy SEALs to conduct the operation unilaterally. Given the spate of anti-Americanism in the country, Pakistan Army could have risked serious decline in its societal image if it had partnered with US forces in the said operation.
As for the more important question pertaining to the future of international terrorism or the power of al-Qaeda after the demise of Bin Laden, at least three possibilities point to a glimmer of hope for a world safer and securer than it has been in the last over two decades after the creation of the world’s biggest terrorist network.
First, the killing of Bin Laden may demoralise al-Qaeda, especially because there is no one in the network’s leadership cadre as iconic and charismatic as him. Dr Zawahiri is the likely successor. He was among the founders of al-Qaeda, and his audio and video messages inspiring the followers have been as frequent as that of Bin Laden. However, in the last over 20 years, it was Bin Laden around whom the entire terrorist network revolved. Other younger and proactive figures in the organization, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based leader of al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula or Abu Yahya el-Libbi, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who claims to be a theologian, may be operationally effective. However, none of them possesses the quality of a messianic leader around whom the terrorist followers should be voluntarily willing to coalesce for a common cause. An acute leadership crisis within al-Qaeda may considerably limit its operational capacity in near future.
Second, the fact that Bin Laden could escape capture or death by the world’s most powerful country for so many years was in itself a factor boosting the resolve of al-Qaeda’s followers and inhibiting international community’s ability to decimate the global terrorist network he led. After losing its most-cherished personality, al-Qaeda can expect the US-led international hunt for its remaining leaders to pick up considerable momentum in coming weeks and months. Without a charismatic leader, the adherents of al-Qaeda ideology can be expected to show less voluntarism and more calculation while pursuing the terrorist course.
Third and more important, the process to re-integrate and re-conciliate Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups is already in progress. One of the foremost preconditions for insurgent leaders in Afghanistan for the purpose is that they should dissociate themselves from al-Qaeda. After Bin Laden’s death, the moral inhibition for the leaders of Afghan insurgency, particularly Mullah Umar, to accept such precondition is largely over, and this factor alone creates a reasonable possibility for the Afghan reconciliation process to make instant headway with Pakistani help.
If there are good reasons to hope that Bin Laden’s death may auger a relatively more promising era in the international effort to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and the region, there are as many reasons to suggest that the road to global recovery from jihadi militancy may still be littered with unpleasant surprises and unforeseen risks in the post-Bin Laden era.
The first reason pertains again to the leadership issue within al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri has in many ways proven to be more vicious than Bin Laden. In fact, it may very well be the case that it was he who all along actually ran the terrorist organization. After all, even at the time of al-Qaeda’s establishment in late 80s, his name comes up as a principal culprit in the mysterious assassination of Abdullah Azzam, the Jordanian Palestinian teacher of Bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri founded the Egyptian Islamic jihad and plotted the killing of President Sadat. His audio and video tape messages have always been filled with specific threats, including those directly inspiring the followers to undertake targeted assassination of top political leaders. With him possibly capturing the throne of the world’s largest terrorist entity, and with al-Qaeda sleeper cells located all around the world willing to avenge the death of Bin Laden, we can only expect greater mayhem and murder at least in the near future.
Second, Bin Laden may have died, but the hate ideology he popularised across the world’s 1.3 billion strong Muslim population lives on. Its appeal may have declined in North Africa and the Middle East, where several countries are experiencing the public upsurge for democracy and freedom—ideals that never fared anywhere in Bin Laden’s jihadi narrative. Yet, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, among the followers of Hamas in occupied Palestine, and several other poverty and conflict-ridden Muslim zones, al-Qaeda’s radical ideology resonates quite well. It has already done enough damage, especially in the shape of creeping intolerance among Muslim sects and against religious minorities and by popularising a conspiratorial worldview and a delusional discourse.
Last but not the least is the mythology of extremism on the basis of which radical Islamist groups have always thrived. Interestingly, the place where Bin Laden was killed has been home to extremist tendencies grounded in myths of divine grandeur surrounding extremist leadership for at least two centuries. In 1831, Syed Ahmad died battling the forces of Pubjab ruler Rangit Singh at Balakot, located north of Abbotabad. However, even after his death, Syed Ahmad’s aide Wilayat Ali continued to mislead the local people that Syed Ahmed was still alive and hiding in a cave as part of a tactical retreat from the battlefield.
The extremist argument in subsequent decades of the 19th century--that Muslims should migrate to this region and create a base, the literal meaning of al-Qaeda, as a precondition for the return of Syed Ahmed and the victory of good over evil under his leadership--may continue to resonate among extremist forces in the region even after Bin Laden's demise. The American decision to dispose off Bin Laden's body in the Arabian Sea and not to release his photo after death may have only fueled widespread public perception about Bin Laden still being alive and hiding somewhere. Al-Qaeda feeds on such delusional beliefs, and we may continue to see this Great Deception at work in the tribal badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan--al least for sometime from now, if not more.
To conclude, the fact that Bin Laden is history now is important in many ways, but not significant enough to suggest that the Age of Terror will be over soon. The roots of the jihadi cancer are spread so deeply that it will take considerable time and great international effort to uproot them.
The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, May 6, 2011. It can be accessed at weeklypulse.org