The attack carried out by US Special Forces on the fortified mansion in north-eastern Pakistan housing the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, will have implications around the world.
It is almost 10 years since units of bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, al Qaeda — which means the Organisation, in Arabic — hijacked four commercial airliners in the United States. Two of the aircraft were rammed into the World Trade Center in New York, a third crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, and the fourth exploded on impact after passengers attacked the hijackers in mid-air.
This was, however, only the most spectacular act of terrorism which bin Laden organised. Among his earlier crimes, he was responsible for the murder of a New York rabbi, Rabbi Kehane, in 1990, the unsuccessful bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, and bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
During the 1990s, bin Laden formed an alliance with the Taliban which seized power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, after the Soviet forces’ occupation ended in their withdrawal from the country. The Taliban were, like bin Laden, Sunni fundamentalists who created an Islamic state committed to the imposition of Sharia law, especially against women and “infidels”, and violent opposition to the West.
Afghanistan became an international training-ground in which thousands of al Qaeda recruits from around the world, including some from Australia, were given military and ideological training, before being sent throughout the world to carry out acts of terror.
By the time Western governments and intelligence agencies woke up to the threat, al Qaeda operatives were functioning worldwide, and over the past 15 years they have launched many deadly terrorist attacks, including the 2001 attacks on the United States, and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings which killed scores of Australians.
When President George W. Bush declared war on al Qaeda after September 11, he could hardly have imagined that the bitter war against the Taliban would still be continuing 10 years later.
The continued war in Afghanistan is a measure of the determination of the Taliban and al Qaeda to regain control of the country and continue their war against the West.
The question now is whether the death of bin Laden will diminish or end the threat of Islamic terrorism around the world.
In the short term, given the decentralised structure of al Qaeda, bin Laden’s death is likely to provoke an increase in attacks on Westerners and particularly Americans. Not surprisingly, the Taliban leaders in Pakistan announced that it would target Americans for reprisal killings, and the US Government braced for an immediate response by issuing warnings to Americans everywhere and upgrading security threat levels.
The US Navy special forces which attacked bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan were obviously brilliantly prepared for their mission. The operation reportedly took 40 minutes to complete, indicating that there was a fierce and prolonged fire-fight inside the fortress-like building where bin Laden lived, an anonymous residence surrounded by multiple high walls.
Despite the story that bin Laden had been tracked by US agents following one of his couriers back to his hide-out, it is also possible that one of bin Laden’s colleagues betrayed his location or else that bin Laden had outlived his usefulness to Pakistan’s authorities.
While the US said that Pakistan had helped in the capture of bin Laden, it is interesting that Pakistan was not informed in advance of the attack. The location of bin Laden’s secret headquarters in a city far from the Afghanistan border, but where Pakistan military forces have major military bases, must point to the collaboration of Pakistan’s military forces with both bin Laden and al Qaeda.
The fact that the US attack team took the trouble to take bin Laden’s body with them was clearly designed to prevent bin Laden’s grave becoming a shrine and a rallying point for extremists.
The death of bin Laden is unlikely to quell the uprisings currently convulsing Syria, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab countries, because the “people power” revolts which have already overthrown the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps Yemen are not inspired by al Qaeda, but by deep disaffection with endemic corruption in authoritarian regimes which have failed to meet the aspirations of their people.
This disaffection will continue regardless of bin Laden’s death. In the long-term, the death of the grand strategist of al Qaeda is likely to reduce the prospects of Islamic extremists seizing control in the vacuum created by the departure of long-time authoritarian dictators, except in Egypt. There the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood is poised to seize power after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarek.
But it’s not clear that they can satisfy educated younger Muslims’ aspirations for jobs and a decent lifestyle.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.