Bin Laden: To Kill a Man or Kill an Ideology? – 2 May 2011

So, after nearly fifteen years of searching, the United States finally got its man. And rather cheekily he was living in a garrison town in Pakistan, which is going to raise some awkward questions for the Pakistani authorities and mainly the military, given that they are so prominent in the town Bin Laden kept his million pound villa in.

But some cautionary notes:

* How Pakistan responds (at its various levels and its various ways) will shape how this episode will be viewed in the wider historical sense. I wonder whether the US and their allies have already given up on Pakistan as a useful ally, to have found intelligence on Bin Laden’s whereabouts in August 2010, and where he was roughly would have probably been a shock – he was not hiding in a cave somewhere remote. The chances of him living incognito in such a location is slim. How the Pakistani public responds (or vocal parts within), we can speculate on .. but it’s unlikely to be to western tastes.

* By most accounts Bin Laden had been unable to operationally lead AQ for sometime, but his defiance of the west and the franchise groups were important to the loose networked organisation he established. He will not be directly replaced, and thus the brand is compromised in a significant way. But, but, but, the number of people ‘inspired’ by or self-starting in this line of activity is large (particularly in North Africa).

* Bin Laden’s kind of jihadism was started in Egypt in a response to what were seen as western backed dictatorships. There’s a curious cross-over with radical Parisian thought too – a revolving door of education for the founding thinkers – but these movements did not end Mubarak’s reign and how far they can claim to have an influence might be in doubt (it is to us sat in Europe, but maybe it’s not so clear in those countries).

* We must obviously be more vigilant about reprisals – some literature suggests it takes 18months to plan a ‘terrorist spectacular’ so our vigilance from this one event might run for 3years. In the very short term our key cities and infrastructures should be braced for what might be thrown at it. Thank God we don’t have a massively high profile global sporting event coming to London soon….

* For me, though, the battle of ideas fuels the wars between peoples, and it is in the tight narratives spun by Jihadist propagandists from Iraq War 1 to the current day that are going to be the most intractable part of the west’s attempts to roll back the threat from Bin Laden’s networks and affiliates. Rolling up the groups is technically possible, but difficult. Rolling up or dissuading people from the politico-religious ideology that underpinned it will be almost impossible.

It’s an important day, and I don’t want to underplay it. But the counterterrorism battle has moved both domestically, and also internationally into areas such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia and away from the Middle East.

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