2 May 2011
Dr Paul Cornish
(Former Chatham House Expert)


In conception and execution, the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden was an extraordinary operation.

The raid by special forces took just minutes to achieve their objective; killing the United States' arch adversary and seizing his body. Rather than launch another remotely controlled drone attack, the commitment of 'boots on the ground' made it possible to guarantee mission success and to minimise so-called 'collateral damage' to civilians and bystanders. In short, the operation demanded timely intelligence, precise targeting and personal courage; while US intelligence services and armed forces have these three qualities in abundance, allies and adversaries alike will have been impressed to see them combined with such ruthless effectiveness.

It has often been said in Iraq and Afghanistan that while Western forces have expensive wrist watches their opponents have plenty of time. But this operation was months, if not years in the making; proving that the United States has not, after all, forgotten the meaning of strategic patience.

But there are a number of awkward questions to be asked. Why was bin Laden's safe house just a stone's throw from a Pakistani military establishment and just 60 miles from Islamabad? Did the Pakistani intelligence and military establishment connive in hiding and protecting bin Laden? Or, conversely, did they assist in the raid in some way? Either way, the implications will be significant in Pakistan and regionally.

Bin Laden made his 'declaration of war' against the United States as long ago as 1996; why has it taken the United States so long to track him down? And finally, while this was a presidentially authorised 'kill operation', some will ask whether it would have been preferable to bring him to trial for his crimes.

But so what? The world's most notorious mass murderer is dead. This is good news for the United States and its allies - and could be the defining moment of what will prove to be a two-term presidency for Barack Obama. It is good news of sorts for the families of his victims, albeit a poignant reminder of the tragedy that overtook so many on 9/11, on 7/7 and on other occasions. It is good news for mainstream Muslims, oppressed by the association made by bin Laden between their faith and the wave of international terrorism he inspired.

Bin Laden's death will also be a blow to morale among his followers and within al-Qaeda, and the manner of his death might discourage others from stepping too readily into his leadership role. And finally, bin Laden's death might also dilute some of the potency of the jihadi brand in the Middle East and North Africa, giving countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya a little more breathing space as they seek to find their own way.

But it's not over yet. In the short term there could be reprisal attacks. Far from being forgotten, bin Laden will be remembered very intensely and very angrily for months to come. His followers will be determined to show that the jihad is not over, just as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be keen to show that their insurgency is not over either.

For the longer term, it would be a mistake to assume that bin Laden's death means both the end of al-Qaeda and the end of the jihad; as if bin Laden, al-Qaeda and jihad are not just closely connected but are three, structurally inter-dependent pillars. It is widely understood that bin Laden created a franchise for international terror that is designed to survive without him. For his followers, and for others in the future who subscribe to the myth, bin Laden will be seen to have died like a warrior, if not a martyr. As the man who inspired and symbolised jihad against the United States and its allies, bin Laden will continue to inspire for decades to come.

An abridged version of this article originally appeared on Bloomberg.