The death of Osama Bin Laden deprives Islamic fundamentalist terrorism of a key symbol but its impact will be rather more obvious in the Western media than either in the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists, or in the military ventures and systematic restrictions on civil liberties occasioned by the “war on terror” launched by 9/11.
If anything, the reported location of the military operation that killed him, Abbottabad in Pakistan, raises more questions about the United States’s relationship with that country and the incapacity or unwillingness of the Pakistani Government to play the sort of role in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist aggression expected by the West. The role in the operation of Pakistan's intelligence service, suspected of protecting Bin Laden for years, will be a matter of profound interest.
The death of the architect of such an historic act of mass slaughter will, understandably, be the basis for an outburst of nationalist joy in the US. But Bin Laden’s significance in the global war on terror has surely been marginal for years, particularly given al-Qaeda’s growing reliance on homegrown terrorism, in which Muslims radicalized by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fundamentalist scholars in their midst, have started their own jihads, without having to rely on a fractured international terrorist group or a man living in hiding in Pakistan.
Indeed, let’s not forget that one of Bin Laden’s key goals in developing the plans that led to 9/11 – remember originally it was a much bigger operation to involve dozens of airliners – was to so infuriate the West and the US in particular that it would wildly lash out at the Muslim world, thereby accomplishing what al-Qaeda had hitherto been unable to itself – radicalizing entire generations of young Muslims across the world and send them into combat against the West.
In this, at least Bin Laden was partly successful. As a British diplomat noted during his second term, George W. Bush became the “best recruiting agent al-Qaeda ever had.”
His death, however, won’t change the amorphous “war on terror” – a phrase abandoned as inconvenient during the Blair years – which embraces the minutiae of what you can take onto planes, western indulgence of Middle Eastern dictators, the increasingly pointless western presence in Afghanistan, and the systematic abrogation of basic civil liberties not merely for Muslims unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for westerners as well.
There’ll be no repeal of the violations of civil liberties embedded in the criminal codes of western countries, no expedited withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, no US shift to support democracy in the Middle East at the expense of its client dictators. The war goes on, and governments won’t relinquish the wartime powers they’ve accrued, however much they may exploit the death of Bin Laden.
There is, however, a certain coincidental aspect to the timing of Bin Laden’s death. As young Arabs take to the streets across the Middle East to drive their dictators from power, as once secure bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalism like Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Egypt’s Mubarak and even the once-“mad dog of the Middle East”-turned-Western-favourite Muammar Gaddafi lose power, al-Qaeda has looked less relevant than ever.
Ultimately Bin Laden’s success wasn’t enough. It is not fundamentalism to which Middle Eastern youth are now turning, but to freedom from tyranny, persecution and censorship. The values for which the young people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Syria are marching and dying are completely antithetical to those espoused by this mass murderer and his henchmen.