By Ajai Sahni
After an unrelenting effort spanning more than a decade, Osama bin Laden, the amir and ideological fountainhead of al Qaeda, its founder, and the architect of the 9/11 attacks in the US, was killed in the intervening night of May 1-2, 2011, in a US operation in the garrison town of Abbottabad, less than 62 kilometres from Islamabad, and a stone’s throw from the Pakistan Military Academy, the country’s top training established for officers, and the local Army Brigade Headquarters.
Barely a week earlier, on April 23, 2011, Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, had driven by this location to the Kakul Military Academy, just over half a kilometre away, to boast, in his address to cadets there, that “the terrorists’ backbone has been broken” by his Forces. Over the past years, the Pakistan establishment, including two successive Presidents – General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari – have actively spread a smokescreen over the al Qaeda leadership’s presence on Pakistani soil, repeatedly asserting that bin Laden, in particular, was either dead or holed up in some caves in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was, however, living safely in the heart of an Army cantonment, in “an extraordinarily unique compound”, a three story building constructed around 2005 on a one acre plot, surrounded by 12 to 18 foot security walls, topped with barbed wire. There was no telephone or internet connectivity and all external contact was managed through a tiny group of trusted couriers – the vulnerability that was finally breached by US intelligence. The furnishing was rudimentary, suggesting that this may be one of many safe-houses between which he would have been shuffled about over the past years. Crucially, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, bin Laden was reportedly treated in a military hospital in Rawalpindi, and, in early 2002, had been sheltered in the Binori Masjid in Karachi, where he is said to have undergone treatment for a shrapnel injury after his escape from the Tora Bora cave complex. Since late 2002, however, he was pushed deep underground, most likely, given the circumstances of his eventual discovery, the near-impenetrable secrecy surrounding his movements, and the persistent disinformation campaigns by state agencies and high officials, by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Indeed, as John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security noted, “We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there (in Pakistan) for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there… There are a lot of people within the Pakistani Government, and I am not going to speculate about who or if any of them had fore-knowledge about bin Laden being in Abbottabad. But certainly his location there outside of the capital raises questions…”
Bin Laden was killed at about 2:00 AM (PST) on May 2, 2011, in an operation by a special team of Navy Seals, purportedly flown in from Afghanistan on two Black Hawk helicopters – one of which “tumbled into” the courtyard of the safe house as a result of mechanical failure. A third Chinook helicopter was despatched to facilitate the extraction of the Force. Four persons, possibly including one of bin Laden’s sons and two ‘couriers’, were killed in the operation, though only bin Laden’s body was taken away and, reportedly, given a quick ‘burial’ at sea.
US President Barack Obama informed Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari about the operation only after its completion.
“For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol,” President Obama declared in a late night Press Conference at the White House, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort.”
The operation was a fulfilment of Obama’s campaign promise to bring bin Laden to justice, even as it was the culmination of unrelenting efforts by three successive Presidential administrations committed to this objective. At least four years of painstaking investigation on a tenuous ‘thread’ made the eventual operation possible. Crucially, this was the result of unambiguously stated US Counter-terrorism Policy that declared:
When terrorists wanted for violation of U.S. law are at large overseas, their return for prosecution shall be a matter of the highest priority and shall be a continuing central issue in bilateral relations with any state that harbours or assists them… If we do not receive adequate cooperation from a state that harbours a terrorist whose extradition we are seeking, we shall take appropriate measures to induce cooperation. Return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government…
Nevertheless, it falls far short of the commitment to “respond with all appropriate instruments against the sponsoring organizations and governments.” Indeed, cushioning the potential impact of the US operation on Pakistani soil to neutralize the highest value terrorist target, bin Laden, President Obama chose to add, in his first Press Statement, that “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.” The statement fuelled speculation that the assault in Abbottabad was a ‘joint operation’ with Pakistani Forces or Intelligence, but this has quickly been negated, first by desperate denials from the Pakistani leadership, and subsequently by a succession of ‘unofficial’ statements by high US officials, clearly declaring that, as Ambassador Louis Susman, US Ambassador in London expressed it, “This was a unilateral operation which the US carried out on its own.”
Bin Laden’s death is, without doubt, a tremendous victory, but would be premature grounds for euphoria. President Obama explicitly recognised that, “There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.” Indeed, it is a survival imperative for the al Qaeda and affiliated groups to quickly orchestrate major – if possible, catastrophic – strikes against Western targets over the coming days and weeks. Absent such operations, the organisation’s credibility will quickly fall away, and the ‘faithful’ will begin to abandon it.
Bin Laden’s death has, of course, done little to damage al Qaeda’s operational and organisational capabilities. Ayman al Zawahiri, his long-time associate and second-in-command has, in any event, been in charge of ‘military operations’ for years, and will seamlessly assume preeminent command. A deep international religious, political, strategic, military, financial, communications and organisational structure has long been established, and has operated over the past years with no significant inputs from, or connection with, bin Laden, other than his occasional exhortatory messages. A second line of leadership, most prominently including Saif Saif al-Din al Ansari al Adel, the organisations present ‘military commander’, Amin al Haq Afghan, the ‘security coordinator’ and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, al Qaeda’s spokesman, remain at large, as does an elaborate network of second and third tier leaders. Al Qaeda and its loose affiliates not only have a strong presence across Asia, they have established cells in almost every major country in Europe and have a significant presence on American soil as well, though their operational capabilities in these latter locations remain limited – or may, in some measure, be unknown. While the report lacks credibility, it is useful to note, in this context, that one of the Wikileaks exposures had disclosed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks now in US custody, had claimed during interrogation that al Qaeda had hidden a nuclear device in Europe which would unleash a “nuclear hellstorm” if bin Laden was captured or killed.
Nevertheless, even before bin Laden’s termination, al Qaeda had been immensely weakened by a relentless succession of arrests and killings of operational commanders and leaders over the years. These have prominently included Muhammed Atef, the ‘military chief’, killed in 2001; Abd al Rahim Nashiri, ‘operational coordinator’ for the Gulf, captured in 2002; Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, captured in 2003; Abu Farj al Libbi, allegedly ‘third in command’ in al Qaeda, captured in 2005; Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, killed in 2006; Riduan Isamuddin Hambali, ‘coordinator’ for South East Asia, captured in 2005; and Sheikh Sa’id al Misri aka Mustafa Abu al Yazid, al Qaeda’s third in command and the main conduit to bin Laden, killed in 2010; among a host of lesser leaders, many of whom have been successfully targeted in drone strikes on Pakistani soil more recently.
While apprehensions of al Qaeda reprisals in the wake of the bin Laden killing are justifiable, it is equally important to recognize that the organisation’s and its affiliates’ capabilities are overwhelmingly located outside the West, in Muslim majority countries, most significantly including Pakistan-Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia, where retaliatory strikes would mainly kill Muslims – undermining organisational legitimacy even further. While residual risks of catastrophic attacks in the West cannot be ignored, the reality is, al Qaeda has failed to orchestrate any such strikes – beyond the soft target train attack in Madrid in 2004, and the London Underground bombings in 2005, the latter with tenuous links to al Qaeda.
Crucially, bin Laden’s killing also comes at a time when extremist Islamism and authoritarian regimes that have instrumentalised Islam are being challenged across the Arab world, in some of the most dramatic cases, peacefully, giving the lie to the ideology of violence and death that the al Qaeda represents. The complex interface of continuous successes against al Qaeda and its affiliates – crowned by bin Laden’s death – and the rising revolt within Islam against the extremist perversion of the Faith, will have necessary and long-term consequences that enormously favour the forces of freedom and undermine the terrorist enterprise. This dynamic imposes tremendous pressure on al Qaeda’s successor leadership to demonstrate its capabilities through dramatic, potentially catastrophic, acts of terrorism, since these, alone, can possibly reverse what may appear, at present, to be an irreversible decline.
In all this, the political and military leadership in Pakistan is most manifestly caught in a cleft stick. The state will be forced to adopt a contradictory stance, on the one hand trying to project its ‘cooperation’ with US agencies as proof of the country’s continued commitment to the goals of the war on terror and, on the other, attempting to distance itself from the actual operation in order to appease a radical domestic audience. There have also been vociferous denials of any official role in protecting bin Laden over the past eight years and more; Pakistan’s leaders will continue to sing the same old song about the country being the ‘principal victim of terrorism’, having lost the lives of ‘tens of thousands of civilians’ and ‘thousands’ of security forces personnel; but, as the circumstances of bin Laden’s death crystallize further, this pretence will become progressively unsustainable.
Even if there is a passing maelstrom of reprisal attacks in areas where al Qaeda and its affiliates have sufficient surviving operational capacities, Bin Laden’s killing will certainly have a chilling effect in the medium term, as it demonstrates far greater will on the part of the US intelligence and political leadership than has been manifest in the ambivalent declarations on the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, for years, Pakistanis and Afghans have scoffed at the US with the quip, “You have the watches, but we have the time.” Already, there are apprehensions that America will use the death of the al Qaeda leader as an excuse to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan; to ‘declare victory and run’. Hillary Clinton has now stated that the bin Laden killing demonstrates to the world that, “You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us.” It remains to be seen whether this resolve goes beyond the killing of individual terrorists.
The death of bin Laden is a major incident – but still, only a single incident – in the long war that Islamist extremists and their state sponsors have launched against the rest of the world. The prolonged effort and operation that brought about this outcome demonstrates the virtue and necessity of sheer doggedness and persistence in the protracted contest in which civilization is presently engaged. If the success at Abbottabad becomes the basis of even greater resolution in the war against terrorism, its outcome will inevitably strengthen the forces of freedom. If, on the other hand, it yields even the slightest moment of weakness, the price in terror will be unbearable.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management