Osama bin Laden’s death reported by President Obama will no doubt gladden the hearts of many US citizens who probably see this as the final chapter of the 9-11 saga. Our Prime Minister John Key is reported that he is confident this death will make the world safer.
The more thoughtful might be wondering about the questions bin Laden’s death raises.
The most immediate question is how al Qaeda will now react. Their spokesmen have always claimed that should anything happen to bin Laden they will initiate reprisals. Of recent times they have been claiming to have sufficient nuclear materials to let off a nuclear weapon which they say is hidden in a major city in Europe. Although it is uncertain that they could have assembled a full nuclear bomb, it is however a plausible threat to think they might have assembled a so called dustbin bomb – or dirty bomb in which a conventional bomb is packed with nuclear waste.
A friend who is something of an expert on terrorism once told me that the leadership of al Qaeda should be seen as the equivalent of the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology. When you cut off one of its heads two others would grow in its place. The fact that bin Laden had taken shelter in a substantial fortified compound in an Pakistani industrial city of something like a million people only two hours drive from the Capital, suggests that at the very least he had a substantial following of loyal supporters who had no intention of handing him over to authorities. That also suggests a strong support that may well simply hand on the leadership. It is very likely that Ayman al-Zawahri al Qaeda’s second-in-command is a natural successor to bin Laden. Zawahri has been a constant spokesman for al Qaeda frequently calling for action against the US and has been one of the agitating forces behind the rebellion against Gaddafi. Zawahri is also often credited as the brains behind al Qaeda and there is no reason to assume he would not continue in this role.
That the place bin Laden was discovered was in a city rather than the more plausible option of a place in the more inaccessible tribe-lands, also raises the question of the position of the Pakistani government. They had always maintained he was still in Afghanistan otherwise, they told the US administration, the extensive Pakistani Intelligence network would have known about him and taken action themselves. The fact that he was in effect right under their noses makes either their co-operation on the matter suspect – or suggests the Government has little real control even over its own intelligence service.
The question of the Taliban and its relationship with al Qaeda is more complex. The Taliban membership (ie the groups that have been educated in the special Madrassas) are distinctly different from one area to another when the Pakistani Taliban is compared with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda is indeed still the coordinator of some of the Islamic terrorism aimed at the West but by all accounts has had a closer relationship with the Taliban in Pakistan than it has with the Taliban in Afghanistan. We should remember that the Taliban in Afghanistan is a relatively isolated organisation and when they did have a Government after the USSR had left, only three of the thirty or so Governments with a clear Islamic majority would recognise them. Over recent months the spokespeople for the Taliban in Afghanistan appear to have been rather cool on supporting bin Laden, perhaps seeing him as an unnecessary obstacle to gaining political control in the contested territory. Robert Fisk over recent months has been talking of bin Laden as a spent force, in that al Qaeda is now weakened and events in the Middle East with uprisings demanding more secular democracy might suggest that the movement has become less relevant. Because the changing control in the Middle East has still to assume its final shape, it is premature to write off al Qaeda and in Libya at least there has been a visible al Qaeda presence amongst the rebel forces.
Having said that, it is relatively well known that Osama bin Laden enjoyed strong financial support, particularly from some of the more fundamentalist Sunni Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia which officially refuses to support him. Remembering back to the relatively large number of Muslims, disenchanted with the West in general and the US in particular who have rejoiced at previous terrorist gains, it may be that the champagne should stay in the bottles for now.