Will the myth of Bin Laden be more potent than the man?

(Huffington Post) Osama Bin Laden once said that he worshipped death, while his enemies worshipped life. Yet Al Qaeda's original Dr. Evil and Global Terror's bête noir did not go out in a blaze of glory at a time of his own choosing, but rather was summarily dispatched by US Navy Seals in his own bedroom.

In the near term and for the next months Western intelligence and security forces will be very concerned by any response to his death. It is highly likely that AQ has been preparing for this eventual scenario, which considering the focus in finding/killing him was always fairly predictable outcome. Governments will be particularly worried that there are potential sleeper cells that have been activated to respond in order to restore the narrative of AQ's potency now that its figurehead rests at the bottom of the sea. A reminder of the continued threat to Europe from AQ came as recently as last Friday, when 3 men were arrested in Germany for posing a "concrete and imminent danger" to the nation.

However this threat is weakened by the fact that OBL's command and control over the AQ network has been incredibly limited since his flight from Afghanistan to a compound in central Pakistan that is reported not to have been connected to the internet or to the mains electricity.

Indeed AQ is both an organisation and an ideology that, since the loss of its Afghan haven in 2001, has been characterised by the diffuse and independent nature of its cells and their ability to plan autonomous operations against targets across the world.

AQ did not exist under Saddam controlled Iraq until the invasion of 2003, after which it proliferated and only was tamed when its grand plans for an Islamic Emirate in Iraq was rejected by the country's tribes, backed up by financial and military-logistic assistance of the Americans. The irrelevance of OBL to AQ in Iraq was best demonstrated by his arguments with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over the targeting of Shi'a Iraqis.

Meanwhile the steady deterioration of the central government's control over Yemen has seen the emergence of AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009. In October of last year a senior U.S. official told MSNBC that despite the growing threat from AQ in Yemen and Africa, AQ in Pakistan -- meaning OBL -- "remains the most dangerous" and "the most vital target" in the war. Although OBL was not directly involved in any terrorist plots, the official said he was "still active in providing suggestion for possible targets, tactics, and ultimate approval" for operations. AQ threats in order were: Pakistan; Yemen; Somalia; North Africa; Iraq; and Afghanistan.

Now that OBL is dead, serious questions will be asked of whether Pakistan deserves to remain at the top of the threats tree. There are real concerns around the intentions of the Pakistani government towards AQ, a group that they once supported. The fact that OBL was located close to Islamabad, right under the noses of one of Pakistan's military academies, gives rise to the argument that the ISI and the Pakistani military were incompetent at best and complicit at worst. A crucial question remains: how and when the Pakistani authorities were kept in the loop of the operation.

The official line is that the Pakistani government has had a good history of information sharing with the United States. Although very much a partisan figure, former-President Musharraf's criticism of the US operation is likely to speak to a majority of ordinary Pakistanis who feel that President Obama has steadily escalated America's violation of Pakistan's sovereignty since he was elected through drone strikes and Special Forces raids. The response of both the Pakistani government and their public will be a key litmus test of the effect of the OBL killing.

Indeed beyond any immediate response the biggest question is whether OBL the myth is a more potent recruitment tool than OBL the man.

 

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