Expert view: bin Laden’s death a boon for Obama

President Obama announcing bin Laden’s death earlier today.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of global militant network al-Qaeda, has been killed in Pakistan by a small team of U.S. operatives, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday.

Experts comment on the significance of bin Laden’s death:

Dr Anthony Billingsley, School of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of NSW.

From the American point of view, it must be very cathartic but I don’t think it means anything as far as winning the war on terrorism is concerned. We are taking about an idea, something people believe in. It is not tied to Osama bin Laden.

In the short term there could be some degree of dispiritedness on the part of his supporters but then he becomes a martyr and an inspiration.

I don’t think it has much to do with the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s a tribal conflict against foreign invaders. Yes, al-Qaeda were the cause of the invasion in the first place but now it is the Taliban against the West.

Dr Craig Snyder, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University

It will put an end to the tragedy of 9/11 in the sense that the survivors can have a bit of closure. But in terms of the war of terror that Osama bin Laden’s followers will be carrying on, nothing really changes.

For Obama, it depends on how it is played out in domestic U.S. politics. Republicans will be reluctant to give him any credit but Obama and the Democrats will always be able to say, ‘We were able to get him, you were not.’

But American politics is so divorced from reality, it is hard to tell what will happen.

Dr Brett Bowden, Centre for International Governance & Justice, Australian National University

It’s a big shot in the arm for Obama. It’s exactly what George Bush was looking for some years ago. As to what difference it makes to things on the ground, that remains to be seen. Are terrorists going to lay down their arms and give the game away? In the grand scheme of things, I am not sure how much difference it makes. But it’s great PR for the Obama administration.

Dr Greg Fealy, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific

As for the impact on Southeast Asia’s jihadists, I think a small number of them will be highly aggrieved and it may possibly strengthen their jihadist resolve.

But for a lot of Southeast Asian and Indonesian jihadists, I don’t think it would make a huge difference. They would regret his death at the hands of the U.S., which they see as a prime enemy, but their struggle is not so much an al-Qaeda jihadist struggle. Their struggle is very much an Indonesian one and their focus is more local rather than global.

Associate Professor Anthony Burke, Politics Program, ADFA at the University of NSW.

I would say that operationally, the significance is probably minimal, in that the ability of the senior al-Qaeda leadership to organise big attacks and orchestrate the movement well below them of the kind you saw in September 11 was probably curtailed a number of years ago.

It is significant in the sense that he was a major moral and propaganda figurehead for the movement and in particular his ability to write and spread propaganda was very powerful. He was a significant intellectual and linked an Islamist world view to a geopolitical agenda directed against the West. To the extent that we won’t be getting statements and videos from him any more, it is significant.

I have a question in my mind about how the operation worked and whether it may have been possible to capture rather than kill him. If they could have captured and put him on trial in an international court, it could have been important in strengthening the norm against terrorism.

Professor Greg Barton, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University

It’s not a knockout blow. It’s not the end of al-Qaeda and the end of terrorism. But terrorism is very much about ideas and persuading people on an emotional level so countering terrorism also has to be about hearts and minds. Bin Laden was an iconic figure. Obama was careful today not to gloat and to speak of the fact that victims were Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The challenge is to make sure al-Qaeda doesn’t get some kind of public relations gain out of this. We can’t prevent Osama bin Laden from becoming a martyr figure but we can be wise about speaking to people who saw him as a Che Guevara figure. The West may see him as a horrible figure of violence but many people see him as somebody fighting for the underdog, someone standing up against imperialism and oppression. If we are to counter that, we need to counter not just the tactical element through policing but by countering the narrative.

Dr Benjamin McQueen, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University

I think we have to be careful not to overstate it. It’s a PR boon for the president. I don’t think he will overplay it too much but in a lot of ways, this is where it begins and ends. Bin Laden didn’t really have organisational input into al-Qaeda anymore.

His death marks a potential turning point and it could be used as rationale for scaling down operations in Afghanistan, but really it begins and ends at the level of symbolism.

Associate Professor Brendon O’Connor, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney:

I think it means a great deal to Barack Obama. Going into re-election, to some extent, he will feel like one of his campaign promises of 2008 has been achieved and he has been fighting the right war, as opposed to the war in Iraq. But how serious a threat was Osama and al-Qaeda to the United States after 2001?

The indication was that it was a small team that killed Osama. Was that the way that the U.S. should have been going from the beginning or was it necessary to launch a war in Afghanistan to achieve this end?

My own view would be that this isn’t an indication that the surge in troops in Afghanistan that Barack Obama authorised from last year onwards has achieved its end. This end has been achieved through different means.

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