Osama bin Laden’s death: What difference will it make?

May 5, 2011

Watch the full event here. 

By Patrick Smith

On the day after al Qaeda’s “leader” Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid on a nondescript compound outside Jalalabad, BBC Urdu sent out reporters into four cities across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not to ask questions, but to observe. To sit at bus stops, to listen.

Aamer Ahmed Khan, the head of the BBC’s Urdu service, told a packed Frontline Club panel on Wednesday: “They reported back that hardly anyone was talking about it. They were talking about power cuts and security.”

He said the first joke in Pakistan was ‘oh my god it’s so dangerous here, not even Osama bin Laden is safe’.

This illustrates the disconnect between the western view of world events – and its 24-hour media cycle – and other parts of the world. For many in Pakistan, this was not earth-shattering news. But it’s huge news for the UK and even bigger in the US – so no doubt the Frontline was full of people seeking some analysis. Here’s what went down…

Lynne O’Donnell, an author and former bureau chief in Kabul for AFP, underlined the apathy felt by many in Urdu and Arabic speaking lands: “The people I’ve been speaking to in Kandahar and Kabal… say the overwhelming response is one of indiffrence. They say al Qaeda is not a man. When you think about it they have never looked at Osama bin Ladan as their leader.”

She went on to say that there are about 260 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan – some of whom are ideologically motivated, while others are simply “supporting 10 kids and a mother-in-law, they might have three acres and the choice of whether to grow a crop or poppies”.

Middle East peace process hope

Zaki Chehab, editor-in-chief of ArabsToday.net, the “largest Arabic-language news website” saw a silver lining in all this: we might now start talking again about more important things:

I met [former Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat one month after 9/11 and it was the beginning of US putting him under siege. His words were exactly, ‘if it wasn’t for 9/11 we would be having a Palestinian state within to to three months…. Now there is no Bin Laden anymore we hope that Israel and Palestine returns to centre stage.

Political fall-out

Dr Farzana Shaikh, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, was in doubt that the Pakistani political elite has lost some bargaining power through its failure to identify and capture bin Laden. “The most immediate impact with the loss of Osama bin Laden is that in the leadership and intelligence agencies have lost their leverage… and the idea that they were entitled to a seat at the top table. They are now in a much more vulnerable position.”

She continued on the theme of Pakistan’s alleged indifference towards radicalism – a criticism levelled at the state by many in the US:

[former Pakistan leader Pervez] Musharraf capitalised on the threat of terrorism to keep his rule intact… Pakistan’s problem is really the problem of the state’s ambivalence towards Islam. Islam and religion have been repeatedly used as means of propping up regimes. Pakistan has become much more vulnerable and environmentally friendly to different waves of radical Islam. This has been taken advantage of our military regimes which have nurtured a policy of militantism, which have used radicalism to pursue regional interests against India

Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University, London, broached the tricky subject of whether the execution of bin Laden was legal. “They have killed thousands, hundreds of thouands, after 9/11. Was it legal? Probably not exactly,” she said.

“If you make might right, how can you preach rule of law to others? Of course it’s absurd to say ‘justice was done’. Obama’s a lawyer…but he was speaking as a politician, not as a lawyer.”

And turning to the issue at hand – is the world a safer place without bin Laden? – she offered a more sociological analysis: radicalisation inside Europe is caused by the treatment of Muslims in Europe and the amount of immigration, she argued, which is a far wider issue than, who are the bad guys and how do we get them.

“So I don’t think Osama bin Laden is responsible for all these sources of radicalisation.”

Hollis also made what was for me the point of the night – don’t think this superdsedes some of the genuinely era-defining democracy movements in the Arab world…