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Osama bin Laden

May 02, 2011


HE is dead, and his demise marks the end of an era. America has finally killed the man whose pursuit had consumed the country for almost a decade, an extremist who inspired even more violence than he himself perpetuated. In many ways 9/11, Osama bin Laden's signature attack, has come to define the last 10 years. It has shaped US foreign policy to a greater degree than any other development of the decade and led to two major wars, one of which continues today. It has resulted in gross violations of human rights in the name of the 'war on terror'. It has transformed Pakistan and Afghanistan, dragging them into ideological divides and violence. The latter has claimed many more thousands of lives than were lost on 9/11. All of this can be traced, directly or through those inspired by him, to Osama bin Laden, a former jihadi fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan who later decided that American interference in the Muslim world justified indiscriminate violence against the US and those Muslim nations cooperating with it.

As far back as 1992, an Al Qaeda affiliate attacked American soldiers in Yemen, and in 1996 Bin Laden declared war on America and went on to blow up US embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. But it was not until 9/11 that the world woke up to what the man was capable of. By then it was too late, and in the years that followed organisations supported or inspired by him sprang up across the world, slaughtering both Muslims and non-Muslims in their anti-Americanism. That said, Al Qaeda had already been weakened significantly since the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the effects of Bin Laden's defeat should not be overstated. The groups his ideology has generated continue to plot attacks, especially in Pakistan.

As dramatic as this saga was the end itself, a tale of patient sleuthing resulting in a high-risk operation that is the stuff of spy flicks. It took years for American spies to track down a courier working for Bin Laden based on information revealed by Guantanamo detainees, and then months to confirm that Bin Laden was living in the compound. For this detective work and the successful operation, credit must go to American intelligence and special forces. But the event also raises a slew of questions about the level of cooperation with Pakistani intelligence and the military. Were they taken into confidence? If so, at what point? Were they consulted or simply informed? Did they play a role in the operation? If the attempt was purely an American one, were Pakistani radars jammed or dodged? If so, does this point to a failure of Pakistani defence systems? As long as the lack of official disclosure persists, conspiracy theories will continue to spread fear and suspicion here at home.

As for Pakistan, the time for denial is over. Osama bin Laden was not holed up in a cave in the tribal agencies. He was living in a large house surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire in a garrison town housing a military academy. The idea that the world's most wanted criminal was spending his days there unnoticed by Pakistani intelligence requires either suspension of disbelief or the conclusion that the authorities are guilty of a massive intelligence failure. Both hypotheses are disturbing. If the former is true, the state must realise that extremist ideology has killed thousands of Pakistanis and that there needs to be a single-minded effort against it rather than a selective approach that has failed to keep the country safe. And if the oversight was a matter of incompetence, the authorities need to improve their game drastically.

In the years immediately following 9/11, Pakistani intelligence and police worked closely with the CIA to take out a number of Al Qaeda leaders, almost all of whom were found in cities rather than the tribal areas. This is something we clearly know how to do but no longer seem interested in, with the result that the US no longer trusts us enough to plan an operation jointly, even in such high-stakes circumstances, on Pakistani territory. As positive a development as Osama bin Laden's removal is, for the Pakistani state it should be a moment for deep and honest reflection.