A better world, yes. A safer world? Not so much.
Al Qaeda is battered but their capacity is just as intact as it was before their symbolic leader's death
“The world is a safer place”. So Ed Miliband, leader of the UK Labour Party, told the world’s media this morning. He’s wrong. With the death of Osama bin Laden, the world is certainly a better, nicer place, but safer it is not.
Bin Laden himself was a global figurehead for an evil movement combining the religious zeal of a medieval inquisition with the totalitarian tendencies of the worst 20th Century fascists. It is beyond any doubt that he personally organised the murder of thousands, and inspired the slaughter of many thousands more. His death was deserved and long overdue.
But to all practical purposes his death does not disrupt the operational activities of Al Qaeda. Being the world’s most wanted man has a tendency to get in the way of the day job, and as a result it’s been several years since Bin Laden played an active role in the planning or execution of attacks. His time was taken up with hiding from his pursuers – and in doing so bolstering the morale of his followers.
Conventional Al Qaeda, the original and central organisation, still exists, albeit reduced to a much impoverished state from its heyday a decade ago. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is often described as Osama’s Number Two has in fact been publicly identified as Al Qaeda’s de facto commander by the State Department for over two years, and there are no signs that he intends to hang up his AK any time soon.
More importantly, the Al Qaeda diaspora has historically had almost no contact with bin Laden’s centralised command at all. AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and Algeria’s AQ in the Islamic Maghreb are effectively independent armies that view themselves as ideologically part of bin Laden’s movement rather than subordinate to his command. It’s unlikely that they will miss a step as a result of the news.
Similarly, the propensity for homegrown cells to spring up spontaneously in countries around the world is not really diminished. The morale of any Al Qaeda sympathiser has been battered, but their capacity is just as intact as it was before their leader’s death.
None of that is to say that killing bin Laden was a bad decision – just that Miliband’s claims of peace in our time are greatly exaggerated.
The successful operation is clearly a major victory for the United States – not, as their respective partisans are claiming, for Obama or George W. Bush in particular, but for the country as a whole and the long-running Pentagon operation to track bin Laden down in particular.
Bin Laden’s decade at large was not just embarrassing; it undermined a central plank of the West’s deterrent case against terrorism. “If you do this, you will be punished” is the tenet of all justice. The fact that the greatest villain of them all has now had his punishment meted out finally puts an end to speculation that the arm of the law was perhaps a little short.
The biggest questions, of course, are being asked of Pakistan. Like a teenager caught with a stash of pornography by his mother, they are in a difficult spot. Is it plausible they didn’t know he was there, given that his vast compound was round the corner from their national Military Academy? If they knew he was there, why didn’t they hand him over?
Given Pakistan’s woeful track record over the years – and we shouldn’t forget that they were merrily breaking a UN embargo on giving weapons to the Taliban even before September 11 – it will be very difficult for them to convince anyone that they were doing anything other than playing both ends against the middle, lapping up the international aid to help them find bin Laden whilst buying credit with Islamists by harbouring their global icon.
At best, they may be able to claim that a sizeable and powerful rogue faction within their own security apparatus were working for Al Qaeda – and that won’t inspire confidence in anyone.
Mark Wallace blogs at www.crashbangwallace.com
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