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What the end of bin Laden means

In the nearly 10 years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, if there was a man who could claim responsibility for single-handedly setting the world's agenda, it was Osama bin Laden. As the smiling face behind the 9/11 attacks, the leader of a global terror network that reared its head in countries from the U.S. to the United Kingdom to Indonesia, bin Laden changed the way we led our lives in more ways than has yet been fully understood. With the attacks on the Twin Towers, the U.S invaded Afghanistan, unleashing a war that has claimed thousands of civilian lives, in which much of the western world is involved to a greater or lesser degree. It did not make the world a safer place as promised but only made people everywhere more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda's alleged spread into Saddam Hussein's Iraq was one of the reasons cited by the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion of that country. With an ideology that offered nothing but a pledge to destroy the U.S. and the “enemies of Islam” everywhere, bin Laden and his network of jihadists exploited a welter of real and perceived grievances of populations in the Islamic world, both against their own governments and the outside world, especially the U.S. In the al-Qaeda solution, there was no room for negotiations, bargains, or compromises with the “enemy.” The true path was that of violence, which created a self-fulfilling prophesy of a “clash of civilisations” by drawing the U.S. and other western powers into an ever-spiralling war against “terror” — a war al-Qaeda and its ally, the Taliban, and other groups linked to them by their radical ideologies were able to project as a war against Islam, strengthening bin Laden's hands with every passing day. The U.S. had been pursuing him even before 9/11, in fact from as far back as 1992. After his escape from the fierce assault on his hideout in Afghanistan's Tora Bora caves, he was suspected to be hiding in Pakistan. His killing on the night of May 1, in a targeted operation by U.S. Navy Seals at his hideout 150 km from the Pakistan capital city Islamabad, is a landmark development in the “war against terror.”

Beyond relief, what implications does this development hold for the world? When President Barack Obama announced the death of bin Laden in an address from the White House, he was correct in cautioning that this did not mean the end of al-Qaeda. Over the decade since 9/11, the network has expanded, spread, morphed, and broken off into what have come to be known as “al Qaeda franchises” round the world. These franchises have shown their ability to plan and carry out attacks in their area of operation independently of bin Laden. Only last year, a plot to carry out a bombing in the United States with explosives packed in couriered parcels was uncovered in the nick of time; the plot was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AIQM). Last month al-Qaeda warned it would unleash “a nuclear hell storm” in Europe, giving rise to fears that it might have a nuclear bomb. There is a real possibility that the killing of bin Laden will turn him into a martyr, inspiring others to take up the battle. Certainly, countries around the world are bracing for reprisal attacks. Much, however, depends on how Washington conducts itself from this point onwards. For starters, President Obama needs to rethink the war in Afghanistan. If the ultimate objective is to talk to “moderate” Taliban in order to negotiate an end to this war, there is no justification for further military operations in that country, and no excuse for delaying the departure of the U.S. and other foreign troops.

Pakistan certainly has some soul-searching to do. Its political leaders and officials always rejected suspicions that the al-Qaeda leader was holed up in their country. It is deeply troubling that the 54-year-old bin Laden, for whom the U.S. had announced a bounty of $50 million, had made a home not in some remote inaccessible corner of Pakistan, but in one of its most pleasant cities, close to the capital, in a house that was so big it could not have escaped notice. That it was located less than a kilometre from the Kakul Military Academy is even more troubling. Is it believable that Pakistan's intelligence agencies did not know about the presence of the world's most wanted terrorist? Did they ignore what was going on under their noses? Or worse, were they involved in maintaining the safe haven? During his 2008 election campaign, President Obama pledged that if there was “actionable intelligence” about bin Laden in Pakistan, he would authorise action with or without Islamabad's help. In his speech, he was careful to highlight Pakistan's counter-terrorism cooperation. But this daring operation, eight months in the planning, had no Pakistanis on board. In the last few months, relations between the two countries have deteriorated over the CIA's covert operations inside the country.

While much blame can be apportioned to the way the U.S. has conducted itself in the region, for Pakistan the killing of bin Laden on its soil is a moment of truth, somewhat similar to the discovery that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were launched from its territory, only much bigger in its implications. In India, which has tried to overcome the public's hostility towards Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks through a series of peace moves under the personal initiative of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it will certainly be hoped that the death of bin Laden strengthens the hands of those forces in Pakistan who want their state to shut the door on militancy, extremism, and terrorism once and for all. While it may be tempting to see bin Laden's killing at Abbottabad as confirmation of India's worst fears, New Delhi must resist the temptation to crow, and must push ahead with the peace process with the civilian government of Pakistan.

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