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A breather, for now

Osama bin Ladens’s death is a major but not fatal blow to al-Qaeda. The terror group has powerful allies in Pakistan, now its key target, and remains deadly. Bruce Riedel writes.

india Updated: May 05, 2011 01:38 IST
Bruce Riedel

Osama bin Ladens’s death is a major but not fatal blow to al-Qaeda. The terror group has powerful allies in Pakistan, now its key target, and remains deadly. It has evolved enormously since 9/11 and its decentralised infrastructure makes it less vulnerable.

The mastermind of the 9/11 attack was not hiding in a cave in Waziristan or in some Taliban stronghold along the Afghan border region. He was just outside Pakistan’s capital Islamabad in a military garrison town where Pakistan’s first dictator, General Ayub Khan, was born. Abbottabad is in Pakistan’s heartland.

To imagine it, think of Annapolis to Washington, a military city just outside the beltway. To survive there, bin Laden must have had powerful protectors in Pakistani society.

Since 9/11, al-Qaeda has focused on Pakistan. It has built alliances with the Pakistan Taliban (with whom it murdered Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and two prominent Pakistani politicians this year) and groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (which it helped inspire to attack Mumbai in 2008).

Together, these terror groups are a syndicate of murder and each is a force multiplier and protector for the rest. They are deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s urban centres like Lahore and the mega port city of Karachi as well as in the tribal badlands near Afghanistan. Lashkar’s boss Hafiz Saeed led special prayers after bin Laden’s death to eulogise him.

The Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) retain close links to parts of the syndicate, especially Lashkar even as they fight in other parts. It is hard to imagine that no one in the Pakistani army was aware of bin Laden’s hide-out. A key question for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now is to find out how much army protection bin Laden enjoyed? Already tense US-Pakistan ties are sure to get even rockier.

Al-Qaeda has focused on Pakistan because it is the strategic prize in the Islamic world, home to what will soon be the fifth largest nuclear weapons arsenal on the globe and a country struggling against jihadism like no other. Virulently anti-American with a very weak civilian government, bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri have increasingly believed that Pakistan is their best chance at being a global game changer — a coup by friendly officers that delivers the global jihad the world’s sixth largest country with the bomb.

It still remains deeply unlikely but it is a real possibility that keeps US President Barack Obama’s national security team awake at night.

Zawahiri has taken an increasingly critical role in the last few years in al-Qaeda. He is much more the group’s public face than his dead boss, speaking out far more often and even writing a book last year on how to overthrow Pakistan. He was the target of the joint US-Jordanian operation in December 2009 that ended when an al-Qaeda double agent blew up the CIA’s base camp in Afghanistan, killing more spies than any other disaster since Beirut in 1983.

But Zawahiri has seemed out of the loop in the five audio and video messages he released this year, trying to jump on the bandwagon of revolution in his native Egypt. Al-Qaeda long ago became more than a terror group. It is an idea, the concept of global jihad against America. It has an elaborate narrative to justify murder.

But bin Laden and Zawahiri were caught off guard by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions this winter and the wave of turmoil that followed them.

These popular uprisings challenged their whole worldview that terror and jihad were the only way to free Islam of dictators like Hosni Mubarak and of what they call “crusader-Zionist oppression”. The triumph of twitter and freedom in Tahrir Square was a blow to al-Qaeda and a sign that apart from Pakistan and Yemen, it seemed increasingly on the run elsewhere.

Nato is now fighting to free Libya, not to occupy it, making al-Qaeda look dated. Whether al-Qaeda can adapt to the new Arab renaissance is an open question.

The New Mexico-born Colorado State University graduate Anwar al-Awlaki seems the best al-Qaeda leader to lead a response to the new order. His Yemeni al-Qaeda cells have been increasingly creative, with their Christmas 2009 Detroit-bound underwear bomber and last year’s parcel bombs targeting Chicago.

Awlaki’s English language online magazine Inspire, was the first al- Qaeda journal to laud the “tsunami” of change in the Arab world and lay out a plan for al-Qaeda to benefit from it. Now, he will doubtless play a bigger role, at least ideologically.

Killing bin Laden is US President Barack Obama’s triumph and delivers on his March 2009 promise to focus US policy on dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda. His much-maligned Af-Pak strategy has got the big one. But we are still a long way from secure.

(Bruce Riedel is the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad. The views expressed by the author are personal)