Bin Laden's killing and the fate of the 'war on terror'

The news of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by a US Special Forces team has prompted excited discussion of whether the event marks the end (or at least the decisive turning point) in the conflicts that, for a decade, US policy makers have styled as the “War on Terror”. By Colin Murray.



Normally sober scholars of terrorism, like Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, have been moved by bin Laden's death to laud the “disruption of al-Qaeda in the short term” and to conjecture that the killing “truly removes the motives that would likely reconstitute al-Qaeda in the future”.

US and UK government officials, in contrast, have been quick to counter that the likelihood of retaliatory attacks means both would be on “full alert", in the short-term at least. Jason Burke has written with authority on the options for leadership succession available to al-Qaeda, noting the potential for Ayman al-Zawahiri (“good on ideology, strong on strategy and even organisation”) to assume full control. Moreover, as journalist Julian Borger has concluded:

[While] the threat of a devastating attack on the West, possibly involving a new weapon like a “dirty” radiological bomb, has almost certainly receded, there remains the constant menace of the bomb in a cafe, as in Marrakech last week, or once more on a plane. That threat may never go away.

If the struggle to destroy al-Qaeda and its affiliates is therefore likely to continue unabated, the fly in the ointment from today’s news will be in the lasting damage the US raid inflicted on relations with Pakistan. President Obama has long emphasised the significance of Pakistan as a regional US counter-terrorism partner, asserting that “together, we must enhance intelligence sharing and military cooperation … while addressing issues of common concern like trade, energy, and economic development”. As President Obama’s speech announcing bin Laden’s death attempted to make clear, allied states and their security services (and particularly Pakistan) have played a central role in tracking down terrorists:

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

Today, many will consider these words to amount to an effort to conceal the lengths to which the US went to carry out the raid that killed bin Laden without the involvement or consent of Pakistan. They also disguise the degree to which the US has increasingly turned to the use of unmanned drones to strike targets in Pakistan without seeking permission from each strike from Pakistani authorities (and, 10 days ago, prompting complaints from the Pakistani army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani).

As Simon Tisdall asserts:

The extraordinary discovery that Osama bin Laden had been living, possibly since 2005, in a luxury compound in a popular summer resort a short drive from the national capital, Islamabad, is an enormous and dangerous embarrassment for Pakistan’s government.

Abbottabad, where bin Laden was killed, is a garrison town. The prominence of his extensive high-security compound - within walking distance of some of the most important facilities of the Pakistani military’s officer training centre, the Pakistan Military Academy - will once again ignite discussion of the historic contacts between bin Laden and the Pakistani military. The 9/11 Commission concluded, from the mid-1990s onwards, elements within the Pakistani military were “in bed with” al-Qaeda. In 2007 Shaun Gregory noted in a damning analysis of the links between Pakistani intelligence and al-Qaeda:

[T]here is no doubt that bin Laden was so useful to the [Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency], and their Sunni Islamist agendas so closely aligned, that the ISI turned a blind-eye to al-Qaeda operations and repeatedly protected bin Laden, warning the al-Qaeda leadership about CIA and Afghan plots against him.

Such support even extended to warning bin Laden of a US attempt in August 1998 to kill him by cruise missile strike. Since 2001 the US and the UK have invested much effort, money and training in their efforts to turn Pakistan into a useful intelligence partner, with mixed results. Indeed, international law since the 9/11 attacks has imposed explicit obligations on all states to share information to help prevent terrorist attacks. Under Resolution 1373, the UN Security Council bound states to:

Find ways of intensifying and accelerating the exchange of operational information, especially regarding actions or movements of terrorist persons or networks; forged or falsified travel documents; traffic in arms, explosives or sensitive materials; use of communications technologies by terrorist groups; and the threat posed by the possession of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups; Exchange information in accordance with international and domestic law and cooperate on administrative and judicial matters to prevent the commission of terrorist acts.

Today, however, this cornerstone of international relations since 9/11 appears undermined. The short-term consequence will likely be further drone strikes, conducted without notifying Pakistani authorities in advance. In the long run, Pakistan will likely remain unable to dispel the suspicion amongst partner states that it has been leading them on a merry dance, extracting ever more money and support for its military and security services through the unfulfilled promise of counter-terrorism co-operation.

Indeed, as long as Osama bin Laden remained alive, elements of the Pakistani authorities undoubtedly concluded that this gravy train would keep rolling. If anything, these events signify that without obligations to co-operate enforced through international criminal law, key states (including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) are unlikely to ever divorce security co-operation from the pursuit of narrow geo-political advantage.