Comment: Five Surprising Truths About the Killing of Bin Laden
May 5, 2011 10 Comments
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org |
For intelligence and terrorism experts, the frustrating part of Osama bin Laden’s assassination is not the lack of details on the operation, nor the diplomatic ping-pong currently taking place between America and Pakistan. Rather it is the media spectacle that has unfolded around the story ever since it first made headlines. The cacophony of conjecture that has hijacked the global news agenda is maintained by an army of talking heads, who rely on rumor and speculation to satisfy sensationalist media editors. The outcome is a sterile media circus, devoid of substance, which leaves news consumers confused and uninformed. To counter this trend, intelNews lists here five truths of critical importance about Osama bin Laden’s assassination. In summary: One, America does not have to prove it killed bin Laden. Two, bin Laden’s assassination is not a victory against terrorism. Three, it likely will not reduce —and may even increase— terrorism. Four, it will not have the slightest effect on the Taliban or the war in Afghanistan. Five, even if the Pakistani government consciously shielded bin Laden, there is not much the US can do about it. More specifically:
1. The symbolic significance of the assassination of Osama bin Laden is indisputable. Strategically, however, it is not at all clear that America exercised its most sensible option by killing him. In fact, it may be argued that, by exterminating him in a gun battle, the United States gave him the kind of death he longed for, namely a fast track to heaven, along with the much-coveted legacy of martyrdom. This may actually augment his reputation among his followers, who are accustomed to viewing casualties as an honorable mark of victory. This might have been avoided by bin Laden’s arrest and conviction following a conventional criminal trial. Regardless of the ramifications, it is worth pointing out that America does not have to prove that it killed bin Laden. Those who doubt the truthfulness of Washington’s claims are neither “insane” or “conspiracy nuts”. They are skeptical individuals, many of whom base their doubts on the loss of credibility suffered by America after the Iraq War fiasco, as well as in the cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch, among others. However, doubters should be looking at al-Qaeda for proof that bin Laden is alive. The Obama administration has risked its political future and the credibility of an entire nation by confidently announcing bin Laden’s demise. If it is lying, and the al-Qaeda founder is indeed alive, then the As-Sahab Foundation (al-Qaeda’s tech-savvy media arm) should be able to prove it quite easily.
2. Bin Laden’s assassination is not necessarily a victory against terrorism. Rather, it is a victory against a specific group of people, who associate ideologically or tactically with al-Qaeda. But the organization itself represents just one of many facets of political Islam —and it is neither the most popular, nor the most dynamic facet of that movement. Moreover, al-Qaeda is not a conventional terrorist group. Some of the more advanced schools of thought in contemporary security studies dismiss altogether the view of al-Qaeda as a terrorist group. Instead, they choose to view it as a global insurgency or, more accurately, a loose network of ideologues and organizers who are riding a broad wave of social discontent in the Muslim world. This wave of discontent is complex, often anarchic, and expresses itself in diverse ways, of which terrorism is simply one.
3. Because of the above, the impact of bin Laden’s physical demise on terrorist attacks against American and other Western targets may be negligible, and —in the long run— may even result in their increase. If al-Qaeda fades away because of bin Laden’s demise —as many Western observers hope— the void that it will leave behind may be filled by a yet unknown entity, which may prove far more dynamic and daring than al-Qaeda ever was. It is also worth noting that the operational effect of bin Laden’s assassination on al-Qaeda itself will depend on the degree to which he was anything other than a figurehead in the organization at the time of his killing. Considering that his hideout was isolated from the world in terms of modern telecommunications, and that he himself relied on couriers to relay and receive messages, it would not be outlandish to speculate that he would have already surrendered the strategic leadership of al-Qaeda to other, more mobile and interconnected members.
4. The killing of Osama bin Laden will have no effect whatsoever on the Taliban. The only connection between al-Qaeda and the Taliban exists in the minds of Westerners. In reality, these two groups are distinct in almost every conceivable way. Al-Qaeda is a globalized, underground movement that draws its power from its transnational nature and is not interested in a large membership. Instead, it focuses on cultivating the personal ideological commitment of small numbers of selected volunteers. Its battle is primarily one of ideology and propaganda, and much of it —some say most of it— focuses on communications and fundraising, not armed action. The Taliban, on the other hand, represent a mass movement of national liberation that draws its membership almost entirely from the Pashtun people, most of whom live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although they are primarily Muslim, the Taliban do not have a global Islamist agenda. They fight solely for the right of self-determination of the ethnic group which they represent. The Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11, other than that they happened at the time to be hosting some members of the group which we believe financed the operation —namely al-Qaeda. In fact, unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban have never attacked America, nor would they be interested in doing so if America did not have a military presence in their homeland.
5. Finally, a word about Pakistan. This writer is not of the opinion that high-level Pakistani officials were aware of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Protecting bin Laden would simply be too risky: judging by America’s military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be safe to say that any country that would choose to shelter the al-Qaeda leader after 9/11 could be risking its physical existence. But even if it is assumed that elements of the Pakistani state did shelter bin Laden, it must be clearly stated that there is little the United States can do in response. American pundits and politicians who insist Washington should terminate its strategic links with Pakistan are clearly oblivious to the fact that, without Pakistan’s assistance, America’s military prospects in Afghanistan —such as they are— will collapse almost overnight. Pakistan’s communication channels with the Afghan mujahedeen, which have been carefully cultivated since the 1970s, constitute America’s only strategic and intelligence insight into Afghanistan. America has very little intelligence expertise on that obscure country, which is a major reason why, ten years after it invaded, it is still bogged down in a bleak and unpredictable war. Consequently, it relies on the Pakistani intelligence services to provide mediation services, just as they did in the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan War. At this point, American intelligence presence in Afghanistan is virtually dependent on Pakistan’s mediation. In the few instances when the Americans tried to develop their own actionable intelligence leads, they ended up with costly disasters, as in the case of Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian triple agent who killed seven CIA operatives in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009.
Putting aside the fact that Pakistan is a strategic nuclear power, its role in America’s Afghan war is too important for it to be shunned by Washington. Unless, of course, American policymakers decide to altogether abandon Afghanistan. In reality, Afghanistan’s proximity to Iran is of such geopolitical importance, that the chances of America pulling out, and allowing Pakistan, Russia, or China to fill in the ensuing gap, are virtually nonexistent.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis holds a PhD in the politics of intelligence. He teaches and authors widely on subjects relating to intelligence practice and reform. He is Senior Editor at intelNews.org. More of his articles can be found here.