The death of Osama bin Laden

“As crowds gathered outside the White House, there was little question that Mr. Obama’s presidency had forever been changed.” That’s the caption the New York Times put under the photo below.

David Axelrod might have preferred this event to have occurred closer to the end of Obama’s reelection campaign, though accusations that the news was being timed to serve partisan political interests would have been even harder to refute than they are now.

“Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan, President Obama announced on Sunday night,” is the lead in the New York Times main report.

US forces on a mission to kill or capture (not capture or kill) bin Laden, killed him “in a firefight” in Pakistan. At least that’s what the Times reports. Only further into the report does it reiterate what Obama actually said: “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

The White House chooses its words carefully. If bin Laden was killed during the firefight then it’s reasonable to assume that this is exactly what Obama would have said. To say that the al Qaeda leader was killed after a firefight seems to suggest he was executed.

The exact manner in which the death occurred may explain why, at least thus far, no photographic evidence has been released. If bin Laden was indeed executed it was most likely for political reasons.

Bin Laden’s capture could surely have provided an intelligence bonanza of inestimable value. His subsequent trial would indeed have been a compelling demonstration of what it should mean to deliver justice. But it would also have opened a can of worms.

If bin Laden had been tried in front of a military tribunal then yet again this government would be undermining the strength of the criminal justice system. If on the other hand he was tried in a civilian court, it would be hard for the administration to justify its continued use of military tribunals for any terrorism-related cases.

During a trial, there would be no predicting what kind of strategically damaging information might have been revealed that could have affected US relations with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or other Gulf nations.

And then there would be the headache of deciding where the trial could take place.

Just over a year ago, it was Attorney General Eric Holder who assured Congress that there was no risk of bin Laden ever being read his Miranda rights.

“The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s the reality. … He will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so he’s not captured by us. We know that,” Holder said emphatically.

“Dead men don’t talk,” is a truth esteemed by those who value secrets, but the fact that bin Laden’s death leaves so many questions unanswered means that he will remain a potent force for those who want to promote conspiracy theories of every variety. The celebrations in this “victory” will likely be quite short-lived.

Lawrence Wright notes:

The fact that bin Laden was found in a compound in a wealthy retirement community populated in large part by former Pakistani military officers raises dire questions about the relationship of the Pakistani army and its intelligence community to radical Islamic terrorists. For the past decade, as America has poured billions into a country where about one in a hundred citizens pays income taxes, the Pakistani military/intelligence complex has gone into the looking-for-bin-Laden business. Now, they are out of business. If it is true that Pakistani intelligence was helpful in locating bin Laden, and kept that matter secret, then we can begin to sort out our fraught relationship with that troubled country on a more equitable, trusting basis. If that turns out not to be the case, then there will be a dreadful reckoning to come.

Al Qaeda and its followers will be attempting to make a powerful statement in the next several weeks to demonstrate that they are still relevant following this mighty loss. Al Qaeda affiliates may speed up operations that were in the pipeline. The recent bombing in Marrakesh and the arrests in Germany demonstrate that Al Qaeda continues to have enthusiastic, entrepreneurial operatives that are eager to make their own mark on history.

The fact that bin Laden had found refuge close to Islamabad may or may not reveal a role played by individuals in Pakistan’s intelligence and military establishment, but perhaps more importantly it should serve as a reminder of what was already known in 2001: that al Qaeda never was an organization tied to a particular place.

Al Jazeera‘s political analyst, Marwan Bishara, writes:

[F]or the Muslim world, bin Laden has already been made irrelevant by the Arab Spring that underlined the meaning of peoples power through peaceful means.

It is also worth recalling that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its affiliates have killed far more Arabs and Muslims than they did Westerners.

And it was only after they failed to garner real support in the Arab world that they ran back to Afghanistan and began to target the West.

After long hijacking Arab and Muslim causes through its bloody attacks on Western targets, al-Qaeda has been discredited since 9/11 and its organisational capacity diminished by Western counter terror measures.

Al-Qaeda’s bin Laden has provided the Bush administration with the excuse to launch its disastrous and costly wars in the greater Middle East.

As expected, Washington’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to provide al-Qaeda with fresh recruits and support in the Muslim world and perpetuate a cycle of violence that ripped through the region for the last decade.

However, it has been the more implicit and less costly US and Western intelligence services that succeeded to a large degree in curtailing al-Qaeda activities, limiting the movement of its leaders that eventually led to his killing.

So what will this mean for the US war in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Certainly Washington has less reason or justification to wage a war in Afghanistan now that bin Laden is no more.

It might also find more readiness among certain Taliban leaders in the absence of the thorniest issue of al-Qaeda, to make a deal that insures a power sharing arrangement in favour of the Taliban in return for curbing the use of Afghanistan by al-Qaeda to export “terrorism”.

Bin Laden will continue to be a distraction for the short term, and especially if some of al-Qaeda groups muster revenge attacks.

But in the long term, it is the historical transformations in the Arab and Muslim world that will eventually close the book on al-Qaeda.

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  1. There is no doubt that the whole manner of presentation and dispaly of this particular death are almost engineered to create more questions and more indeterminants outside the US than they will have put to rest.

    Why would an operationlike this not be filmed? Helmet cams are basic items for special forces so the entire “firefight” could have and should have been on tape. 9/11 was an international visual display of horror and yet the so-called implementor, the culprit par excellance and the object of the entire war on terror was not granted a public execution?

    It smells. Where are the images?

    This looks very likely to become the magic bullit of the 21st century.

    Beyond that, it exposes the Afgan conflict as a sham, unless the conflict de-escalates very quickly. An unlikely event…

  2. It seems notable that when the decision to attack Bin Laden in his mansion, the operation of choice was a hit squad of boots on the ground and not the much vaunted missile firing drones. The limitations of remote control war are brought out clearly — it’s too random, too imprecise, and too unreliable.

  3. Laurie K says

    There have been many references to all the Moslems killed by Bin Laden. Where? When?

  4. DE Teodoru says

    Ten years later Osama proved to really be on dialysis and isolated. In 2008 campaign Obama promised, “We’ll find him and kill him.” Accordingl­y, per a White House official to Reuters, order was to “kill not capture.” Is triumphali­sm worth the rage it produces, poking at vengeful Jihadi suicide bombers by bragging? Discretion always was hallmark of SecOps people, Obama’s speech last night taking full credit– “on my command”– has made it into a needless bragging; when we’re hit again Americans will realize that Obama failed both in security and economy. Osama’s goal was destructio­n of US economy. He failed, Wall Street doing that instead. Obama’s macabre triumphali­sm makes Obama needlessly look like another Chicagoan, Al Capone. When you assassinat­e a symbol of a murderous movement run on vengeful hate you must expect revenge. This operation could have been done discretely even if not legally. It shouldn’t have been turned into a cheap 2012 re-electio­n campaign gimmick, substituti­ng for no jobs increase. Still, I hope Obama wins because the Republican corporate stooges would be catastroph­ic. Alas, right now, Obama’s re-electio­n is in the Jihads’ hands. If the succeed in avenging Osama’s assassinat­ion Obama’s re-electio­n is doomed. That’s whyast night’s Capone-esq­ue speech was utterly impropriet­y, leaving us more paranoid about what’s in that box in the corner of the subway. Obama should have let things settle and only then let leak out that Osama is gone. Triumphali­sm a decade later is pointless risky bragging!

  5. Daniel N says

    My issue with Mr Woodward’s commentary, much of which is thought provoking, is that he appears frustrated the President and the government are not treating international terrorism as a law enforcement issue, more than nine years after the country definitively stopped doing so. It may indeed have been a bad decision to move to a “war paradigm” in confronting groups like AQ, but it is how we deal with them and it should not be a surprise. In other words, we are at war with AQ and have no obligation to capture rather than kill them unless they surrender. Given the “war” outlook, it is also important to note the drawbacks of capturing Bin Laden: reprisals against all US sympathizers to demanding his release (don’t think of this as Cheney-like worst-case scenario scare mongering. Little incidents would build up as the US held such a target for years). While I agree with your take on the political drawbacks of capture, it is too cynical.