ANALYSIS: Osama Bin Laden and after —S P Seth - Friday, May 06, 2011

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In their confident advocacy of the ending of “the legend of the so-called superpower that is America”, Osama and his band of fighters, who became al Qaeda, were inspired by their victory against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s

The wild popular jubilation in the US over Osama Bin Laden’s killing is indicative of the need for a demonstrative victory. The successful execution of a limited operation against Osama in his hideout in Abbottabad could not have been more dramatic. It had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller resulting in the good guys (the US special forces) prevailing over the evil (Osama Bin Laden), with his deserved death. As President Obama said, justice was done for the 9/11 bombing of the New York Trade Centre, with Osama as its mastermind. Or to put it in the cowboy/Indian analogy, as the Sydney Morning Herald did editorially: “For the moment, America is walking tall back into town with the body of the outlaw [Osama] thrown over the saddle.”

However, Geoffrey Robertson, a well-known international law practitioner, is not happy with the way Osama was killed and disposed off. In a newspaper article, he writes: “...It [Osama’s death] endorses what looks increasingly like a cold-blooded assassination ordered by a president, who as a former law professor, knows the absurdity of his statement that ‘justice was done’.” As we know now from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) director, the order was to kill him. Osama was unarmed at the time of his execution, and his young wife was shot in the leg but not killed.

Osama Bin Laden’s death is a great morale booster for the US at a time when much of the news about the country is not all that encouraging. The economy is languishing, the dollar is sliding, its credit rating is no longer top notch and the grind of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking its toll on the US in all sorts of ways. Whether the positive impact of Osama’s killing will be fleeting or lasting remains to be seen. The reaction in the US, both at the public and official level, is self-congratulatory. President Obama, in his victory speech to declare Osama’s death, was keen to highlight his personal role. With his polls sliding, this should help him to regain the popular ground, though it is too early to make any confident prediction. Because, in politics, even a week can be an eternity. In Obama’s case, his re-election still has quite some time to go.

Apart from the news and commentary on Osama’s death, the second most discussed related issue in the global media is whether or not the Pakistan government was complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden. The clincher for those who believe in Pakistan’s complicity is that Osama could not have lived in his Abbottabad house for an extended period without being detected in a garrison town with its elite military academy and other military facilities all around. The Pakistan government is simply trying to shrug off the whole affair with varied explanations. But it might have some explaining to do to the US, even though the latter, at its highest levels, is seeking to emphasise their shared anti-terror commitment and credentials. It is common knowledge that, of late, the relations between the US and Pakistan have been more than usually tense, especially after the Raymond Davis affair. The Davis episode aside, the US has been suspicious of Pakistan’s perceived duplicitous dealings, seeking to keep their options open with the terrorists while professing a common cause with the US.

Osama’s death is likely to lead to random acts of violence by assorted terrorist outfits professing ideological inspiration from their former mentor. A large-scale terrorist attack is likely to take time, if it does eventuate. In the Arab world, supposed to have been the centre of Osama’s Islamist revolution, his message has already been overtaken by the popular revolutionary upsurge to overthrow the region’s dictators and replace them with a democratic dispensation. In a sense, in the heartland of Islam, Osama’s massage has become irrelevant for the time being. But in the medium and long term, if political democracy does not lead to economic betterment of the people, there is a danger that people might find refuge in religion, looking for targets of hate and violence elsewhere.

The question then is: what made Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda tick? Because, if it was relevant then, it might still be lurking. An insight into this is provided by an interview he gave CNN in 1997. He said, “It [US] wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us [Arab kings and dictators] to rule us, and then wants us to agree to all this.” He added, “If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists.”

Osama’s rage on the Palestinian question is still relevant. He said, “When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation, the US says they are terrorists. Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the US stopped any plan to condemn Israel.” Israeli intransigence and US support of it remains a provocative issue for the Muslim world.

In their confident advocacy of the ending of “the legend of the so-called superpower that is America”, Osama and his band of fighters, who became al Qaeda, were inspired by their victory against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Once the Soviets were forced to quit Afghanistan, the US did not appear invincible to them. And Osama’s thesis/ideology found resonance with many Muslims in the world, where al Qaeda franchises to kill people became popular.

Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda provided the trigger against the US and western powers’ perceived injustices against the Muslim world. Susan Sontag, a US writer, had the courage to articulate this soon after the 9/11 attacks in a short essay published in The New Yorker. She wrote on September 24, 2001, “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licenced to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public.”

And she added, “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilisation’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”

Her withering criticism of US self-image and policies, for which she was pilloried relentlessly in her country, remains relevant.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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