The dancing and jubilation in the streets of Washington and New York over the death of Osama bin Laden conveys two important realities about the hunt for this terrorist figurehead: firstly that his demise was important to Americans, but secondly that too much emphasis had been placed upon a single individual’s responsibility for a global phenomenon.
The death of the elusive bin Laden will not have any impact on the operations of al-Qaeda or any of its spin-off jihadi organisations.
Since he went on the run following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, bin Laden’s involvement in the planning and operational side of terrorism has been more and more limited.
The same extreme security precautions that kept him alive for so long also meant that he had to isolate himself from all but a handful of trusted followers.
While this may have seemingly hampered his ability to lead, it is important to understand that al-Qaeda was never the rigid hierarchy of the type that we in the West would apply to a company or an army. Nor was it the all-encompassing professional “Terror, Inc.” that was often portrayed by the more hysterical press coverage.
Instead, it was more like a loosely connected group of like-minded individuals that had the finances to support their ideology through operations carried out by others.
A consultative council gave overall direction, and whilst the actual numbers of al-Qaeda operative personnel were likely quite small, it was the organisation’s ability to finance, train and, most importantly, inspire other Islamic extremists that was most important.
For that reason, the death of bin Laden is not any sort of body blow against global terror or radical Islam. Terrorist organisations in the Arabian Peninsula, in Iraq, North Africa, Asia and of course, in the West will still be going about their plans.
Islamic terrorism was never a product of Osama bin Laden. He was merely one of the facilitators of this particular violent response to Western hegemony. The circumstances that motivated him and his followers are still there and will still be acted upon.
Naturally this is a moral and symbolic victory for the United States; the end of an apparently fruitless manhunt that had proven to be an embarrassment, particularly for the previous Republican administration.
The wisecracks about “How can you defeat global terror when you can’t even catch one guy?” can finally be silenced. And although it can often be hard for others in the English-speaking world to identify with the emotional responses of Americans, there is no doubt that this news is both welcome and to be celebrated.
The ghosts of 9/11 may not be laid to rest, but there will at least be some feeling of justifiable satisfaction.
There is, though, danger in the American tendency to personify a conflict through an individual. Mohammed Farah Aideed in Somalia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, even Pablo Escobar in the War on Drugs…there is the inclination to portray the neutralisation of an individual as the resolution of a struggle.
Although it’s attractive to those who want to dumb down geopolitics, it has the potential for blowback. Certainly in Saddam’s case, his eventual capture had no impact on the insurgency, which actually peaked two years later.
It is also notable that President Obama was at pains to point out the co-operation of Pakistan. The complicity of some Pakistanis in harbouring bin Laden specifically and extremists in particular has been a sore point for years.
The fact that bin Laden was eventually located not in some cave bunker on the mountainous border with Afghanistan, but rather in a mansion near Islamabad, will continue this doubt.
Indeed, that the first lead on bin Laden was received all the way back last August may demonstrate just how careful the Americans were in trusting this investigation to their allies in the region.
Perhaps the best result from this historic operation is that America and the world can move on. The undoubtedly huge resources devoted to tracking down bin Laden can now be deployed elsewhere, hopefully in ways that will make a long-term contribution to the fight against terrorism.
That is perhaps worth dancing over.
Related coverage: Is bin Laden’s death a boon to Obama?
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