IT was a surreal, sobering moment. Ten years ago on this day, Osama bin Laden, then the world’s most-wanted man, was taken out by an American special forces hit squad in the garrison town of Abbottabad. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the event, with the landscape of global religious militancy changing considerably, while the state and society in Pakistan have yet to fully come to terms with the fact that Bin Laden was found in this country. At its height, Al Qaeda, the terrorist group Bin Laden founded, could strike far and wide, across continents, creating a major security headache for governments worldwide. However, in the years since the Abbottabad raid, Al Qaeda has become a shadow of its former self, overtaken by even more virulent actors such as the self-styled Islamic State group, which also appears to be in decline though is far from vanquished.
The story of how Osama Bin Laden became a cult-like figure in the world of religious militancy is a strange one. The scion of a large, incredibly wealthy Saudi family of Yemeni origin, Bin Laden shunned his father’s business interests and instead earned his stripes on the Cold War battlefields of Afghanistan, at the time working on the same team as his native Saudi Arabia and the US against the Soviets. However, his eventual transformation from an Afghan-Arab ‘mujahid’ to the mastermind of Al Qaeda helped usher in the era of transnational global jihadi outfits. After Al Qaeda’s violent exploits the world witnessed IS’s reign of terror, until it was brought to heel, but not after leaving a trail of blood across Syria and Iraq. Bin Laden, therefore, has the dubious honour of being the prototype for globalist jihadi groups, even though Al Qaeda may now be a largely spent force. His killing also throws up the uncomfortable truth that world powers once used religiously inspired militants for geopolitical purposes, yet soon changed tack when geopolitics took a new turn.
Closer to home, even more uncomfortable questions concerning Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan remain unanswered. Some answers lie in the Abbottabad Commission report, which was leaked to the media but has never been officially released, much like many earlier commission reports probing national disasters. Because such reports are not publicly released or discussed in a democratic manner, conjecture and rumour-mongering end up clouding the facts. The state should release the Abbottabad Commission report so that the mistakes made can be acknowledged and future blunders avoided. The raid on Bin Laden’s compound was no small event. The people of this country need to be told why the world’s most notorious militant was found in a Pakistani town, and how foreign forces managed to carry out a complex operation, by violating our territorial sovereignty, and escape without being detected.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021