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‘Nobody should doubt the importance of the killing of Osama bin Laden’

By Richard English


Nobody should doubt the importance of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Whether one thinks that al–Qaida had been destroyed as an organization and had become merely an inspirational brand, or holds the view that they had regrouped and still offered a coherent threat, bin Laden’s importance to the movement was centrally irreplaceable.

In this sense, the United States administration and military are right to be so jubilant. The fact that bin Laden had so long evaded the world’s remaining superpower had been a matter of gloating celebration for jihadists.  So his brutal killing is as much a morale boost for the US and her counter-terrorist allies as it is a sharp blow to the confidence and morale of America’s terrorist enemies.

And the mode of operation involved is one duly celebrated too. Even those, like myself, who have argued repeatedly against an over-militarization of response to terrorism, have also stressed that military action – ‘kinetic’ methods – on occasion have their place. This killing was based on precise intelligence, it targeted an important foe and removed him from the war, it did so with striking efficiency, and it managed to avoid weighty and counter-productive collateral damage in the process.

Yet broader lessons also emerge, and celebration should not be the only reaction. First, the lethally effective use of  such precisely targeted military means in May 2011 raises questions about the kind of militarized response which the US and her allies have deployed since the atrocity of 9/11. To kill Osama bin Laden so clinically can indeed be seen as an effective step forward in fighting terrorism.  To invade Iraq in 2003 was not.   Indeed,  the deployment of supposedly counter-terrorist military might in the post-9/11 period has very often missed the mark.  Had greater military force been directed at catching or killing bin Laden in late 2001 – when he was indeed nearly killed at Tora Bora – then he might very well not have survived so damagingly for ten subsequent years.

Again, had military attention not been devoted from 2003 onwards to Iraq – as noted, an adventure of limited value in the fight against terrorism – then the job in Afghanistan would have been easier to pursue efficiently and successfully, as many military voices have made clear.

And, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were and are important in the fight against jihadist terrorism. This is another, less comfortable, lesson to emerge from the events of early May 2011.  Whether the Pakistani authorities did not know that the world’s most famous villain was living near one of their major military bases, or did know but decided not to act decisively on it, the reality remains depressing.  Understandably, there are those in Pakistan whose view of al – Qaida and of the priorities in international relations in the region differ starkly from those of Washington. But the janus-faced role of sections of the Pakistani establishment remains a crucial problem, and likely a lasting one.  As many US soldiers on the Afghan – Pakistan border have themselves painfully noted, the US has been facing something like a war from Pakistan for some years, but has been unable or unwilling to do much about it. The deep problem of Pakistan, and of rival political forces and imperatives within it, is one of the reasons that we will have to learn to live with terrorism for some years to come.

But, thirdly, we need to keep that threat in perspective.  There has been much talk of revenge attacks in the wake of bin Laden’s death, and doubtless there will be both the desire and the labelled actions to follow, on occasion. But the truth is that jihadi terrorists represent a largely limited threat to the west, in practice. They certainly show no signs of succeeding in their central war aims.

Bin Laden wanted to drive the US out of Muslim countries, yet his most famous operation occasioned in fact the military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. He wanted to see those Muslim regimes that he deplored being replaced by the kind of Islamic puritanism of his own choice; yet the events across much of the Arab world this year have shown a surge of politics utterly different in goal and method from his blood-stained, Salafi jihadism.

Bin Laden exaggerated the role played by Afghan Muslim resistance to the Soviet Union, in the demise of that superpower state. Likewise, he exaggerated the possibility of taking on and beating the United States of America. We may have to learn to live with terrorism, but as we do so we can take comfort from the fact that most terrorist organizations come to an end without gaining their central objectives. The death of Osama bin Laden – someone whose goals have come, and will come, nowhere near realization – underlines that central point.

But in combating terrorism of this kind, we can and should retain credibility of public argument. There is no need to exaggerate, distort, or caricature terrorist enemies. The false stories about bin Laden cowering behind his wife as he faced death were never especially plausible; and it does the west no good to have to retract such unnecessary silliness.

Intelligence-led and appropriately targeted counter-terrorism can indeed contain the durable threat which terrorists pose; and offering patient and credible argument against people like bin Laden represents our best approach to winning the ultimate argument against such zealots.

Richard English is Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, and is the author of Terrorism: How to Respond.

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