Osama bin Laden: a false prophet?

8 May 2011

Darth Vader: He is dead.

Emperor Palpatine: Then he is now more powerful than ever.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008)

Last Sunday, 25 US Navy Seals breached Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It seemed Washington’s most wanted man went down guns blazing, opening fire on the elite commandos and cowardly using his wife as a human shield as they infiltrated his bedroom. One precise shot to the head and another to the chest brought the tyrant down. No US casualties were reported. Mission accomplished.

This story was the one presented by President Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan following the operation. Nice plot indeed, perhaps even rivalling that of Scarface or Macbeth in its attempt to vilify the demon to the bitter end. Unfortunately, it is slightly flawed, and shortly after the killing Washington had to retrace its steps and correct some tiny details.

Osama was not armed and did not use his wife as a human shield. In fact, apparently only three people in the compound were armed, and it is arguable how much of a resistance they could put up to two dozen armed and dangerous Navy Seals. What Obama stated he had authorized as ‘an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice’ (i.e. capture) turned into what was really an assassination attempt or even an execution… but who cares?!

As soon as Obama delivered the good news to a nation still grieving its 9/11 tragedy, when ‘a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people’ in history, hundreds of Americans took to the streets in celebration. One citizen in particular was photographed holding an iPad that read ‘Obama 1 Osama 0′.

Recalling the televised celebrations of the 9/11 attacks across the Middle East, one cannot help but see the same degree of grotesqueness in this week’s displays of joy, nationalism and newfound love for a flag reddened with bloodlust and hubris.

But what has the US accomplished?

Is the ‘world safer’, as Obama would have us believe? Hardly. If anything, the death of Osama bin Laden is making the world more dangerous for Americans and British, as Newton’s third law of motions shows: for every action there is a reaction.

As for justice, it is hard to see the slightest glimpse of it. What we have is an Old Testament eye for an eye retribution (a divine justice personified by the US) which openly violated international law and the universal right to fair trial. Saddam Hussein allegedly killed hundreds of thousands of his own people (enough to make Osama bin Laden blush), and even he was entitled to a trial.

However, it has been suggested this week that with Osama’s death, which has brought some closure and a vague sense of ‘justice’ to American citizens and families of 9/11 victims, the Obama administration will now be able to turn the page in Afghanistan.

There are high hopes that these recent developments will rush the Taliban leadership into a peace agreement that will end a war that has cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, thousands of lives and a huge slice of international credibility. This is clearly the old American ‘talk softly while carrying a big stick’ policy at its purest. But a dilemma remains – can the mujahedeen be bullied into accepting a truce?

In the Middle-East, protests against bin Laden’s assassination sprung up in the Muslim world, leaving the West and its embassies around the world fearful of any eventual reprisals.

‘This killing will neither go unanswered nor unpunished. There will be revenge for this grave crime,’ said Saeed Chaudhary, a college student quoted in the Financial Times.

On Friday, al-Qaeda acknowledged the death of its founder on jihadist internet forums and swore revenge to the US, as quoted in the Irish Examiner:

‘We in al-Qaeda organization pledge to Allah the almighty and ask his help, support and steadfastness to continue on the path of jihad, the path walked upon by our leaders, and on top of them, Sheikh Osama’, read its declaration. Al-Qaeda’s statement also added that America’s ‘happiness will turn into sorrow, and their blood will be mixed with their tears’; similar reactions were voiced by the Taliban themselves.

As a result, a chance for peace in Afghanistan seems unlikely with the prospect of new blowbacks and even more unlikely after a new assassination attempt was executed this Saturday in a drone strike in Yemen, targeting another jihadist spiritual leader, US-born anti-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. While al-Awlaki escaped unharmed, further rage against the US will no doubt spread across the Muslim world.

In addition, a lot of ambiguity surrounds Pakistan at this point, since bid Laden has been reported to have lived there for six years next to a military academy equivalent to the US’ West Point. Caught between admitting that it did not know about bin Laden’s whereabouts before a suspicious West, and condemning his covert assassination as a breach of national sovereignty before its people, Pakistan seems like a juggler on a monocycle along a very thin rope. If it falls to one side it risks losing the billion-dollar foreign aid the US provides it and opening its doors to a possible conflict. If it falls to the other it may be overthrown by the very religious extremists it supports. Since Pakistan is perceived as a key player in reaching peace in Afghanistan, the US might now have to contemplate the possibility of an impossible peace.

Al-Qaeda itself has called upon ‘our Muslim people in Pakistan to rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves who sold everything to the enemies’, as reads an article by RFI.

But even in its vague positive aspects bin Laden’s assassination proves to be a double-edged sword.

The existence of Guantanamo Bay has finally been justified, as it was reported that only after 6 years of tireless questioning and intense investigation at the prison was Osama’s location uncovered. At the same time, however, his killing puts the prison into check, since its whole purpose was to help in the fight against terror, and the main goal of the US’ fight against terror was initially to capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Furthermore, the assassination demands an inevitable outcome in US foreign policy – withdrawal from Afghanistan. After all, the rhetorical reason for intervening in the Middle-East was also to catch those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. While Obama’s job approval rating may have skyrocketed following last week’s news, it could quickly plummet should the administration prove unwilling to seriously commit to end its wars.

For some, Obama’s re-election now seems a certainty, unless the Republican party chooses a frontrunner like senator Ron Paul (R-TX), who has garnished widespread support by promising to dismantle what has been an unsustainable US defence superstructure entangling itself further and further into its own military-weaved web.

But even if Osama’s killing appears to settle the score for Obama in 2012, it is only for the time being. Al-Qaeda’s outspoken philosophy has been ‘one man, one bomb’ for quite some time, making it unnecessary to resort to large scale operations to shaken the West. As Russell Crowe says in Body Of Lies (2008), ‘we are an easy target and our world as we know it is a lot simpler to put to an end than you might think.’ All it takes is for one man to walk into a café in Washington, a US embassy on the other side of the globe or reach an oil pipe in the Middle-East, unplug a grenade and the vague victory of Osama’s capture will be smoked away in a frenzy of fear and uncertainty that will rapidly gather momentum. Everything seems to hang by a thread.

Nonetheless, the US government believes it now has the upper hand in the Afghan war. In all its generosity, after bin Laden’s death it has given the Taliban a chance to surrender. We now know they are unwilling to do so.

Can we not see the assassination as an act of desperation from the US, a country so plagued by inner debt and soaring crisis that it wants out of the very trap into which it was lured by Osama after 9/11?

Bin Laden’s plan was clear – to push the US into the same debt-provoking conflicts the Soviet Union got itself into in the 80’s when it invaded Afghanistan, and which, if not precipitated, at least hasted its economic demise.

The past ten years have certainly made Osama a convincing prophet, as we have at least witnessed what could be the beginning of the end of the American empire. Afghanistan. Iraq. Increasing intervention in Libya. And now a possible conflict with Pakistan seems to be taking shape as both the West and its people gnash their teeth at the double-traitorous government.

In the background of this highly volatile world stage, popular protests continue to make themselves heard along the region, demanding the ousting of long Western-backed dictators. The boiling pot could easily spill into Saudi-Arabia, and that would be disastrous for US interests.

Above all this ambiguity and uncertainty hovers the recently forgotten man who pushed the first piece of the domino. He and his organization were created and trained by the CIA. But it was not until Obama that he became a larger-than-life icon. A martyr and a myth. Even if not for the right reasons, Ronald Reagan was right. Al-Qaeda is founding-father material. By assassinating a man whose influence might have withered away if they had not killed him or had simply arrested him, the US just made bin Laden al-Qaeda’s very own George Washington, his teachings and philosophy available to anyone with an internet connection.

New would-be jihadists will no doubt rally to his cause, and if they recall how the Vietnam War played out, they will know very well that in order to overcome the US they need not defeat them militarily – they simply cannot lose.

It remains to be seen whether Osama bin Laden will continue haunting the US, now from the grave. The Obama administration hangs in the balance, still uncertain whether it bought both its second term in office and a ticket out of its wars or a second term and the future demise of the American establishment.

Sebastiao Martins

Photo Credit: Stockvault.net