By Jonathan Randal
Bin Laden's death shows growing confidence of US in dealing with the threat of jihadi terrorism
The derring-do military operation that killed Osama bin Laden brought cathartic closure to Americans, who had longed for justice to be done for the 10 years since al Qaeda’s sensational attacks on the US on September 11, 2001.
Still, triumphalism isn’t in order. Rather bin Laden’s death provides a marker to judge what he and al Qaeda accomplished, as well as their limitations and the growing confidence of the US and its allies in dealing with the threat of jihadi terrorism.
Now it’s time to step back, take a colder view of bin Laden’s diminishing influence in operational terrorism and stake out where our abiding national interests lie after an anxious decade in many ways dominated by the repercussions of that traumatic September day.
The US can afford to do just that because of steady progress in fighting terrorism and hard lessons learned about repeating costly errors.
From his earliest policy statements in 1996, bin Laden never hid his intention to suck the US into an asymmetric struggle with the Muslim world. His aim was to exhaust our wealth, corrode our democratic institutions and undermine our “soft power” influence abroad.
That single-handedly bin Laden initially proved so successful remains all the more impressive since the emergence of his brand new non-state global terrorism coincided with the zenith of America the hyperpower in the early years of the post- Cold War world.
By that yardstick bin Laden arguably inflicted more lasting damage on the US than the shattering physical and psychic trauma he inflicted in al Qaeda’s daring attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Let’s face it. At the outset of the last decade did Americans suppose that President George W Bush’s now discarded slogan - the global war on terrorism -- would bog the US down in a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, justify invading Iraq on specious pretexts which proved to have nothing to do with September 11 and aggravate a national debt so gigantic that the once mighty dollar is being quietly devalued to help limit the harm done by the exponential growth of red ink?
What we hopefully have learned is that successful counterterrorism depends on the unflashy, steady accumulation of information quietly shared by many nations’ intelligence organizations and based on humdrum police work.
A corollary in the age of instant communications and the 24/7 news cycle should have taught us that in our own eyes and those of the world we must be seen to be above suspicion when it comes to respecting human rights. The excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo played into the hands of al Qaeda propaganda.
A professional lifetime covering Third World conflicts long ago convinced me that torture, be it water-boarding or other coercive methods favored by the Bush administration, provide little useful information while tarnishing our once proud reputation for respecting the rule of law.
There are reasons to be optimistic. For instance, Alliance, a dedicated but little known international intelligence clearing house in Paris functioned without a hitch even with the political strains between France and the US caused by outspoken French criticism of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
If our progress often has been stumbling, consider al Qaeda’s fate. From 1996 to Sept. 11, bin Laden operated with near total impunity in an anarchic Afghanistan nominally run by Mullah Omar’s Taliban. The swift but incomplete American war against the Taliban allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan.
But never again did the so-called al Qaeda central command exercise the same freedom of movement. Fugitives and major clandestine operatives make it a rule never to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.
Bin Laden’s seemingly constant presence in his Abbottabad hideout over the last five or six years confirmed what was long suspected: he had to operate under the watchful eye of his Pakistani protectors who at times sacrificed some of his key operatives to keep the Americans happy.
In such an operational straightjacket, bin Laden lost his ability to instigate worldwide terrorist operations. He was reduced to claims of inspiring spinoffs of more or less like- minded radical jihadis. They exercised less dedication to his wishes than McDonald’s branches do toward the regulations of the brand’s central ownership.
The anti-Shiite excesses in Iraq at the hands of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia between 2004 and 2006 caused bin Laden to question its tactics. Al Qaeda in the Sahara, made up of the remnants of the once fearsome Islamist movement in Algeria, is as much a classical criminal organization as a jihadist movement.
Let’s keep in mind that over the years most of al Qaeda’s victims were Muslims. That helps explain why jihadi radicalism was so out of favor when the “Arab Spring” swept first through Tunisia before its demands for democracy and an end to dictatorial rule spread to Egypt and then, amid stiff resistance, to Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
None of these spontaneous movements mentioned al Qaeda.
If the US and its European allies want to keep militant jihadism marginalised, they should avoid repeating the kneejerk support for strongman regimes, many of whom stayed in power by invoking the threat of “us or Osama.”
We would be well advised to spend some of the billions of dollars now earmarked for counterterrorism to shoring up these fledgling democracies. The model should be the fortunes the West so wisely invested in post-Soviet Eastern Europe.
(Jonathan Randal, a former Washington Post reporter, is author of 'Osama: The Making of a Terrorist.' The opinions expressed are his own.)