bin-Laden bites the dust.

Osama bin-Laden has met his maker, facilitated on his journey by a US Delta Force operation (which would have involved a SEAL fire team–SEAL Team Six, specifically– Air Force special operations platforms for insertion and extraction and US Army special forces and CIA paramilitaries doing the human, signals and technical intelligence to pinpoint his location and guide the fire team to the target, and which appears to have involved the fair use of deception in order to divert Pakistani attention elsewhere). Militarily, it is a tremendous achievement and underscores that the US military has become the most experienced and dangerous military force on earth (after all, it has been continuously at war for most of the last three decades, in both high and low intensity operations, and has developed a full spectrum skill set that no other military can match). It tells the jihadist movement that, as in the case of the old Nazi-hunter’s approach to fugitive war criminals, they can run but they cannot hide. It tells would-be adversaries such as the Chinese and Russians that they have a long way to go before they can militarily challenge with any hope of prevailing. As for the likes of the leaders of Iran and Venezuela, it tells them that reckless provocations can have unpleasant consequences even if they hide amongst wimin and children. In a word, the US is unsurpassed in projecting force, which means it is dominant in any battle field, even if it takes some time for it to adjust to the tactical exigencies of the moment (this, however, does not mean that it can politically prevail in every instance, which ultimately is the determinant of overall victory in war. Political issues, rather than military balances, are what make the Afghan conflict and Pakistan’s instability so intractable).

The significance of killing of bin-Laden is more symbolic and ideological rather than practical. After all, al-Qaeda has been fragmented and forced to devolve into decentralised small unit and self-radicalised “lone wolf” operations that cannot alter the strategic equation that runs against them. It can lash out and cause damage in restricted tactical operations, but it is no longer able to mount big symbolic attacks such as the 9-11 and 1990s US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (reports of a hidden al-Qaeda nuke in Europe notwithstanding). Strategically, AQ is not a game-changer.

The killing of bin-Laden is the second ideological blow to al-Qaeda that has terminally weakened it as a global political force. The first blow was the Arab Spring, currently ongoing, in which al-Qaeda is a non factor. Instead of rebelling in support of Sharia rule, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran and the extension of the Caliphate, the Arab street has risen up against tyranny in favour of democracy, free speech, popular vote, government accountability and better equality of opportunity. These are “Western” values that al-Qaeda explicitly rejected, so the ideological repudiation of its vision of the preferred Muslim society is near complete. With the death of its symbolic leader, the futility of its fight is made apparent.

This does not mean that AQ is not dangerous. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s operations director and the person with the fixation on airplanes and transportation hubs, is still alive. Small-scale operations, to include inevitable revenge attacks, will continue for some time to come, if not forever. But as a fighting as well as ideological force, al-Qaeda is spent.

However, another can of worms has been opened by bin-Laden’s killing. His location in a modern constructed (2005) fortified compound with 3-5 meter walls topped by barbed wire located 40 miles outside of Islamabad suggests complicity by at least some elements of the Pakistani state in sheltering him. Although President Obama has said that he consulted with Pakistani authorities and that they “collaborated” in the operation, the truth is more likely that such statements are designed to save Pakistani face and that if anything, the Pakistani authorities were alerted only once the operation was over. The civilian government is weak, fractured and does not control either the military or the intelligence services (ISI). one would think that at least some elements of Pakistan’s security forces would have to have been alerted to the construction of the compound and the unusual nature of its occupants. The Pakistani state is fractured and acts as a sieve when it comes to information leaks, unless the subject matter is too important for some state actors to divulge because their own core interests are involved. Thus it is improbable that the entire Pakistani security complex had no idea of bin-Laden’s whereabouts.

The Pakistani authorities are now confronted by a dilemma. They have repeatedly complained about drone strikes as violations of territorial sovereignty, and most recently ordered the expulsion of dozens of CIA agents. Yet the raid on bin-Laden, so deeply into Pakistani territory–over 120 miles from the Afghan border (or more than 250 miles if the assault came from the Arabian Sea) and so close to the Pakistani capital–is a direct and measured assault on the sovereignty of the Pakistani state. It tells the Pakistani authorities that they do not have a monopoly on security within their borders, and that they are not trusted to share intelligence on critical subjects within those borders. This will leave them embarrassed and seeking a way to placate what will be inevitable domestic protests against the raid and supposed Pakistani collusion with it.

Under such conditions it is not implausible to speculate that some elements of the Pakistani security apparatus will attempt to stage a honor-restoring diversion so as to appease public unrest and re-establish some measure of self-pride. This could be focused on India or Afghanistan as easy targets for unconventional or proxy warfare. It could involve diplomatic retaliation such as a turn towards China. But is seems inevitable that the Pakistani State will be rendered by this event, and that the consequences of that destablisation may be anything but positive.

Hence, jingoistic flag-waving in the US notwithstanding (and some will say that the flag-waving is amply justified), the death of Osama bin Laden may bring some degree of closure but it is not the end of an era. It could well spark an uprising of extremist Muslim resistance that is reinvigorated by its  symbolic leader’s death. It will force a change in US-Pakistan relations and in the way Pakistan behaves as a geopolitical actor.  Whatever the consequences, this is just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another in a story yet to be concluded.

42 thoughts on “bin-Laden bites the dust.

  1. Pingback: Osama bin Laden Is Dead | Rearranging Prejudices

  2. Knowing what we now know Obama knew, watching him joyfully and savagely skewering and mocking Donald Trump at the press club dinner takes on a whole new dimension. All the Palinesque, Tea Party attack memes have been killed stone dead:

    Angry Tea Partier: “he’s a Kenyan traitor selling out America to the Muslims!”

    Average American: “Dude, he killed Bin Laden. STFU.”

  3. A Pakistani turn towards China? I don’t think it’s possible for the two countries to be any closer than they already are!

  4. Pingback: bin-Laden. Some thoughts | Blogs » Welcome to FriendBurst! Your Friendship Site

  5. ” The killing of bin-Laden is the second ideological blow to al-Qaeda that has terminally weakened it as a global political force. The first blow was the Arab Spring, currently ongoing, in which al-Qaeda is a non factor. Instead of rebelling in support of Sharia rule, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran and the extension of the Caliphate, the Arab street has risen up against tyranny in favour of democracy, free speech, popular vote, government accountability and better equality of opportunity. These are “Western” values that al-Qaeda explicitly rejected, so the ideological repudiation of its vision of the preferred Muslim society is near complete. With the death of its symbolic leader, the futility of its fight is made apparent. ”

    A point so obvious that I totally overlooked it and probably the most important point you make. I have to wonder how Koran burnings and mock trials of Muhammad in Florida look in context with your observation.

  6. Hooyah!!!
    Well done the Seals.

    Well done Obama.

    Great analysis above, it seems we are in agreement.

    There will be much bs written about how Pakistan must have slipped up but the reality is that it was a very well chosen spot. It would be impossible to spot someone who never went out in public but always stayed behind secure high walls. Just down the road from Pakistan’s West point would be a great place to hide in plain sight.

    The war on jihadism is won. now we are on mop up. This is the time for magnanimity and plenty of funding as happened with the Marshal plan.

  7. it is no longer able to mount big symbolic attacks such as the 9-11 and 1990s US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (reports of a hidden al-Qaeda nuke in Europe notwithstanding).

    Is this really the case? McVeigh committed alone (conspiracy theories notwithstanding) what was at that time the most significant act of terrorism on US soil with just a truck and agricultural chemicals. Now, it is the case that these have been restricted in recent years, but they’re certainly freely available. That low quality attacks have not been committed in the last 10 years suggests either that they have been defeated by intense surveilance, or that they have difficulty in recruitment.

  8. If you truly believe that the War on Terror is over you are mistaken. You are right that Al Qaeda has decentralised its structure but that is a good thing for them because it means they are no longer reliant on one man for leadership. Bin Laden has only been a figurehead for the last few years, players like Anwar Al-Awlaki are now taking the lead on planning terror attacks. They may not have succeeded as yet but they have managed to get terrorists onto US planes and close enough to cause a real threat.

  9. Interested in what Pablo and others think will be the impact on Afghanistan. The US now have less incentive to be there (or at least have an excuse to get out); will they be able to turn this into greater pressure on Karzai to reform?

    Also don’t know what will be the effect on Taliban recruitment and retainment; can see arguments for effects in both directions.

  10. From a former journalist that posted on my facebook wall:
    “Some technical clarifications: ACE (formerly called Delta) and DevGru (informally called Seal Team Six), as well as the spec ops air units, are sister units and are part of SOCOM.

    The CIA wet ops is the SAD.”

  11. Sh.: SOCOM is the Special Operations Command based at McDill AFB in Tampa. The raiders are part of a JTF (not sure which number) set up in Jalalabad with the explicit mission of hunting high value targets. They are indeed a joint force of sister units, with the AF component home-based at Hurlburt Field (FL) and the Army SF component HQ’d at Ft. Bragg (NC). This time their joint training and ops paid off big time.

  12. Are you ruling out the construction of the compound simply being successfully portrayed as a legitimate home for a wealthy man?
    So rather than lots of blabby Pakistanis being in on OBL being there, I wonder if perhaps the compound was financed through family connections, with the only local people who were aware of who lived there being a very few al-Qaeda. That is after all how terrorists usually operate, very much on a need to know basis, why did anyone in the Pakistan government or military need to know?

  13. To put it into terms people in NZ would find easier to judge, if I were a notorious but wealth criminal wanting to live in style in NZ with minimal risk of being caught, I’d buy or build a flash walled rural mansion in the name of a foreigner, and use just one or two close aids to transport me there. Now, as long as I stay behind the walls, my close aids keep their mouths shut, and no one links those aids to me I should be safe. If I let anyone else in on the secret, especially bureaucrats, I’m doomed.

  14. I assume that the very highest security Pakistanis were aware of the operation, but perhaps not knowing who the high value target was. The muted and rapid government responses suggest at least a prior inkling.

    The public also would be aware such understandings exist, hence the absence, to date, of significant demonstrations. OBL’s death was an expedient solution, probably welcomed by most Pakistanis, if they cared.

    However, any Pakistani openly acknowledging prior or actual knowledge of the USA raid would become a high value target of the many USA-hating factions active in Pakistan. “Ignorance” is mutually beneficial.

    The USA has, over the last couple of years worked quite hard to cultivate Pakistan, who happen to have also suffered large numbers of civilian deaths from various terrorist factions. Many citizens feel their sacrifice is unappreciated in the West.

    Pakistan has quite an effective military, as they provide support for several Gulf states, and are relatively well trained, and the USA seems to want them inside the tent. I doubt any “honour-restoring diversion ” is required.

    Also, anybody who has travelled in Pakistan would be aware that high-walled compounds are common, because of purdah. Wealthy families, especially from the north, will spend money to completely protect their women, so this compound may only be exceptional because of the extra security and perhaps wall thickness, not design or wall height.

    Only Americans and fellow-travellers would imply the compound’s acceptance was evidence of complicity.

  15. Bruce:

    Abbottabad is an Army town and the compound was located 200 meters from the entrance of Pakistan’s most elite officer’s academy. It had no phone or internet connections. It was built in 2005 in the midst of the most intensive man-hunt ever mounted. It received couriers but no other visitors. Even the rubbish was not put out for collection.

    Under those conditions do you not think that someone might have wondered who the “big wig” was? Given that Pakistan operates under martial law, would not some authority have looked into who the occupants might be? Your argument about purdah is crassly simplistic and does not cut it as an explanation. Likewise your claims about the Pakistani military display an appalling level of ignorance about its internal factionalisation and divided loyalties. Thankfully you did not refer to the ISI, who you must assume are also paragons of virtue.

    It is not just “Americans and fellow travels” who have suspicions about official complicity in bin-Laden’s ten year refuge. So keep your veiled insults to yourself.

  16. It’s about 800 metres from the academy, the compound is one of numerous similar compounds in the area, and there was no mystery about the ownership (from the Guardian): “Nobody, of course, had ever seen Bin Laden. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have dreamed he was inside,” said one neighbour. But many knew two Pashtun men who owned the house – possibly Bin Laden’s trusted courier and his brother who unwittingly led American spies to their quarry last August.

    The Pashtuns kept to themselves, people said – burning their own rubbish, sending children to buy food at the shops, attending daily prayers but spurning small talk. Nobody seemed to know their names, or where they came from – some thought Afghanistan, others said Waziristan in the tribal areas.”

    So, for now I’ll accept the hiding in plain sight without the Pakistani army knowing, as you said “The Pakistani state is fractured and acts as a sieve when it comes to information leaks.” I’m sure OBL also knew this.

  17. Thinking about it some more, given OBL’s success in avoiding capture for so long, especially given the effort that’s been put in to getting him, it just does not seem even remotely plausible that he’d be foolish enough to trust the knowledge of his where-abouts to the Pakistani army. It’d be a mad scramble to get the reward.

  18. Andrew W.:

    The “hiding in plain sight” theory requires the willful suspension of disbelief. You and Bruce may prefer to do so, but by nature and training I do not. You will be proven wrong.

  19. Abbottabad was the major tourist centre for the region, the area is quite beautiful with plenty of relatively-expensive compounds. Plenty of Pakistani tourists were there, very few foreigners.

    It was known as the “city of schools”, with rich parents campaigning to get their children into one of the top schools. Lots of nice compounds in many of suburbs, as with many other similar areas in Pakistan.

    I was curious about the high walls, and had to be reminded of purdah. Most Pakistanis I met wouldn’t want to be curious about owners of any nice compounds in the region, drug and arms traders aren’t very tolerant.

    Media is focusing on the presence of military academy, but I don’t recall exceptional activity, just the typical checkpoints.

    It’s on the Karakoram Highway, and was one of many British Hill Resorts/Cantonments in desirable climates, with high value properties.

    There may be other reasons to suspect official complicity, but I clearly noted that, from my experience there, the compound’s unquestioned existence isn’t a good one.

    You decided to extend the scope so, if insulted, it’s self-inflicted.

  20. Bruce:

    Leaving aside your gratuitous insult (which was in no way way invited or self-inflicted, and which will not be tolerated henceforth), do really think that gaining title to the land, securing power and water, contracting builders etc would have escaped anyone’s notice? In the middle of martial law? In the middle of a massive man-hunt? Even if all of the above was done by third parties, do you really believe that no local or national authority would have taken some interest in the who/what of the compound? in a city that has been heavily militarised in recent years? The level of incompetence you suggest defy credulity, and the fact that the Pakistani government has launched an inquiry indicates that they have reason to think that something more than “local” support was in play.

    Your anecdotal recollections are no substitute for hard analytic facts, so I suggest you desist with this line of argument until conclusive proof comes out one way or the other.

  21. Pablo – Whilst sharing your disdain for Hamiltons not so veiled insult I agree with his point. Occams razor.

    I am quite happy to be a fellow traveller with a democratic system that has brought freedom to millions. Better that than a misogynist apologist for theocratic fanatics.

    For a comparison, think Waco Texas. People were obviously aware of it but there was a reluctance for years to act.

    Take it as given that Osama would never have been seen in public. Take it as given that any low level enquiries would be met brusquely without identification of who was there.

    Take it as given that the complacency of hiding in plain sight for 5 years is what lead to his downfall.

    But that does not mean that Pakistan does not have some very robust questions to answer.

    There was apparently a huge trove of intelligence. I look forward to McChrystals teams rolling up a few more jihadists in the coming days and weeks. My guess is there is panic in the world of AQ.

  22. Phil, I am not sure that it’s being an American or fellow traveller with Americans that is the point at issue – but to associate being one or the other with then being likely to make false assumptions.

    Time will tell whether there is any evidence that Pakistani intelligence etc knew of bin Laden’s location. That they did is a presumption.

    This reminds me of the time when Iraqi refusal to allow arms inspectors to do their jobs was exploited to overthrow the regime. One the one hand, it was a breach of cease-fire terms with the UN and on the other it raised the threat of a WMD capability existing or being developed. Clearly it was all a ruse to imply a capability to cower local opponents and also Iran – and one suspects the West secretly knew this and yet in a bold double bluff exploited this post 9/11 to justify regime change (knowing there was no WMD threat to invading forces).

    But can one prove this, similarly can anyone prove elements within Pakistan knew of bin Laden’s location?

  23. But there has to be a pretty big gulf between “OBL’s in there”, and “there’s a guy in there who’s probably on a bunch of watchlists and probably doesn’t want the Americans to know too much”. I wouldn’t be surprised if various people took care not to know much more than the second option.

  24. Pablo said: “The “hiding in plain sight” theory requires the willful suspension of disbelief.”

    Why? What mechanism would lead to the discovery of his presence under that scenario? What would give him away?

    I find the “hey, lets live within easy reach of the Pakistani military, and tell them there’s a pot of gold for the taking” – and then those in the Pakistani army in the know manage to keep it secret for five years – theory more implausible; not quite as implausible as the “Bush did 9/11” theory, but getting there.

  25. No bribery involved? No curiosity about the placxe on the part of any security agency for at least six years? No interest in the comings and goings of couriers (even if they were working for drug lords)?

    I think Keir’s point that it may have been a case of people deliberately looking the other way, rather than directly assisting OBL, is the more alternative plausible theory.

    Since this has now diverted from the more important parts of the post I suggest we just wait and see what eventuates.

  26. Well, whaddya know. The Pakistanis have just said that they alerted the US to the compound in 2009, but left it to the US to figure out who was in it. The art of double-talk looking doubly weak just took another step forward.

  27. Their statement

    “As far as the target compound is concerned, ISI had been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009. The intelligence flow indicating some foreigners in the surroundings of Abbottabad, continued till mid April 2011. It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior technological assets, CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Ladin, a fact also acknowledged by the US President and Secretary of State, in their statements”.

    It’s just the we knew nothing line, with added awareness of the coming into the residence and going out of the residence of people of sufficient note as to pass on the information – suggesting a certain level of competence and inter-agency co-operation. It compares reasonably well with intel flows (unacted upon) in the USA pre 9/11.

  28. With respect Pablo, I think you’re probably wrong. The Guardian’s Jason Burke said this in response to a reader asking whether or not the Pakistani Army knew:

    “I honestly don’t know. I doubt it. I’ve spent a lot of time with Pakistani soldiers, officers and other ranks, and though anti-americanism is rife, and anti-semitism, anti-zionism, a particularly vicious tendency to accept the worst conspiracy theories and a range of other unpleasant ideas/beliefs as well as a broad conservative islamism, i don’t think they supported bin laden. mullah omar and the taliban, yes. lashkar-e-toiba, perhaps. but not OBL.”

  29. CM:

    You could be right (although the views expressed are alarming enough) but that still leaves the ISI.

  30. On a different tangent, Pablo, do you think the US intended to assassinate Osama – or would they have taken him alive, if possible?

  31. Tom:

    Quite frankly I believe that it was a kill mission. Only if he had knelt down and surrendered would they have had to consider the capture option. The reason is that trying to bring him to justice would be a nightmare. Heck, the US cannot even get Sheik Khalid Muhammed to trial in NYC, so you can imagine what would happen if OBL was brought to GTMO. The ICC could have been an option given its success in prosecuting human rights abusers, but the Europeans did not want a bar of him fearing reprisals, civil unrest etc. In fact, holding him would have invited the taking of US or other Western hostages as pawns in a swap, and these would be killed off in the measure that the US did not agree to release him. Moreover, in prison he would be a more potent symbol of resistance than in hiding or dead.

    The upshot is that there was too much downside to a capture to make it feasible.

    As for the justification for a “kill” mission, let me explain the concept of “outlaw” (I originally posted this as a comment over at DPF’s troll farm). The concept is applicable to OBL. An “outlaw” is someone who has violated societal norms to the point that s/he is placed “outside” of the law–-that is, the person has forfeited the right to legal protection. This leaves him/her at the mercy of any countervailing force and completely self-reliant in terms of physical security and defense. The person is, in other words, fair game (which is where bounty hunters came into the picture in the US West). The designation of outlaw status comes from appropriate legal authority, which in this case was the US government but could have been the UN as a result of its post-9/11 security council resolutions authorising the use of force against AQ and the Taliban.

    I am not fan of wikipedia but its description of “outlaw” is succinct on the matter:

    By any definition OBL was an outlaw, and the fact that he declared holy war on the US made him a legitimate military target.

    I shall leave aside the responsibility to protect, lesser evil and preventive war justifications for the raid, but basically they boil down to doing small harm to prevent greater harm from happening or continuing. In the measure that the US can argue that killing bin-Laden disrupts AQ’s ability to continue to harm innocents, then it has its legal grounds covered within the context of “just war” theory.

  32. “Doubting commentators: thee be rebutted!”

    I read all that and just found more of the same.

  33. Andrew W, please enlighten me re your credentials or provide some supporting evidence for your pov. Here we have Pablo, a respected academic with considerable first hand experience within the US intelligence field and Lawrence Wright an acclaimed author and journalist (Pulitzer prize for NF, Overseas Press Club Award, National Magazine Award to name a few) and fellow at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law offering up detailed and evidence backed arguments.

  34. As to the question of whether or not the Pakistani military or intelligence knew OBL was there; I don’t think anyone has offered anything that could be called “evidence”, it’s all conjecture, to me though it seems really unlikely that someone who operates covertly, as terrorists do, and has done so for so long, who had $25,000,000 on his head and who avoided the huge US efforts to get him for ten years, would have been foolish enough to trust the Pakistanis. Especially given that even those who think they did know he was there are adamant that no one can trust the Pakistanis.

  35. Pardon me ‘evidence’ was poorly chosen; I meant supporting opinion (preferably informed). Thank you for taking the time to read Wrights essay.

    I don’t think anyone sensible is suggesting that ‘the Pakistani military or intelligence knew OBL was there’. Pablo says it better than I could [that the location, construction, security practices etc] ‘suggests complicity by at least some elements of the Pakistani state’

    Wright mentions ‘Within the I.S.I., there is a secret organization known as the S Wing, which is largely composed of supposedly retired military and I.S.I. officers. “It doesn’t exist on paper,” a source close to the I.S.I. told me. The S Wing handles relations with radical elements. “If something happens, then they have deniability,” the source explained. If any group within the Pakistani military helped hide bin Laden, it was likely S Wing.’


    General Hamid Gul director general ISI 97-89 (fired for allegedly engineering a coup “helped oversee the creation of the Taliban, reportedly using mainly Saudi money. The I.S.I. openly supported the Taliban until September 11, 2001. Since then, the Pakistani government has disavowed the group, but it is widely believed that it still provides Taliban leaders with safe harbor in Quetta, where they stage jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan.

    And of course OBL was a veritable gravy train of US ‘aid’ for Pakistan (and it’s intelligence apparatus).

    Wright again “In 2009, Senators Richard Lugar and John Kerry, recognizing that American military aid had given the Army and the I.S.I. disproportionate power in Pakistan, helped pass legislation in Congress sanctioning seven and a half billion dollars in civilian assistance, to be disbursed over a period of five years. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, apparently at the direction of the military, flew to Washington, and insisted that his country would not be micromanaged. So far, less than a hundred and eighty million dollars of that money has been spent, because the civilian projects require oversight and checks on corruption. The Pakistani military, meanwhile, submits expense claims every month to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad; according to a report in the Guardian, receipts are not provided—or requested.”

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