“A middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.” (Robert Fisk, 3 May, 2011)
In the early hours of the morning of Monday 2 May, Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by US Special Forces. Bin Laden, 54, was the founder and leader of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden, his son Khalid, trusted personal courier Sheikh Abu Ahmed and the courier's brother were all killed, along with an unidentified woman.
Osama Bin Laden came to the world's attention on 11 September 2001, when the attacks on the United States left more than 3,000 people dead and hundreds more injured. For over a decade this man had been hunted by the forces of the US state in caves in remote areas of Afghanistan. In the end the dreaded leader of al-Qaeda met his end in a sleepy suburb of a peaceful hill resort of Abbottabad in north-west Pakistan.
Residents told the BBC they knew immediately that if any home in their midst was going to be the target of an attack, it would be the private, secure compound protected by barbed wire and whose furtive residents were rarely seen or heard. The security measures put in place at the compound were described by US spokespersons as “extraordinary”. It was about 3,000 sq yards [2500 square metres] in size and was surrounded by 14ft-high walls [4.2 metres], so nobody could see what was happening inside.
The large three-storey building at the centre of the compound was surrounded by high walls and barricades and had very few windows. There was a 7ft [2.1 metres] high privacy wall on the second floor. The walls were topped by barbed wire and contained cameras. There were no phone or internet lines running into the building. Its occupants were so concerned about security that they burned their rubbish rather than leave it out for collection.
Nobody seems to know when this compound was built, but the general view is that it was about 10 or 12 years old. According to the New York Times, US officials believed that the house was specially built in 2005. Intelligence officials in the US are quoted as saying that the house was custom-built to harbour a major terrorist figure.
When it was first built, it was likely to have been quite isolated. But as more people moved in, its privacy was being compromised. The curiosity of neighbours was aroused by the absence of any sign of domestic activity or children playing, no trips to the market.
People living nearby say they rarely saw more than two or three people around the house. From time to time, bullet-proof vehicles would enter and leave the compound. Gates would open and then shut immediately afterwards – there was no contact with the neighbours, who had no idea of who lived in the mysterious compound, but felt that house was a dangerous place and best avoided.
It seems that US intelligence agents had been following the footsteps of one of Bin Laden's couriers – a protégé of captured al-Qaeda commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The courier's pseudonym was reportedly given to US interrogators by detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He was one of the few couriers completely trusted by Osama Bin Laden, who helped keep the al-Qaeda leader in touch with the rest of the world. This allegedly led them to Bin Laden’s last hiding place.
But former CIA field officer Bob Baer told the BBC that he was sceptical about the assertions that Bin Laden had been traced through a courier. “Intelligence agencies like the CIA and the US military will simply put out disinformation to protect the real sources, which could have been anything from intercepts to the Pakistani government itself,” he said. The extraordinary efforts of Washington to distance Zardari and his government from this action suggest that Baer may have a point.
“A surgical raid”
The order to carry out the mission was finally given by President Obama last Friday, after he had held five National Security Council meetings in March and April. The attack was made in the dead of night, when US helicopters, flying low to avoid detection by Pakistani radar, burst into the heavily guarded compound. The first indication of the assault was a massive explosion: a huge flame leapt into the sky from the house, and then shortly afterwards it all appeared to be over. The swiftness of the attack, and its deadly outcome raises still more questions.
The operation, which began at about 22.30 (17.30 GMT) and lasted for only about 45 minutes, was conducted by a special team of between 20 and 25 US Navy Seals. Two or three helicopters were seen flying low over the area, causing panic among local residents. The helicopters, which had flown from Afghanistan, landed outside the compound, and the commandos leaped out of them.
Shortly afterwards residents said they heard shots being fired and the sound of heavy firearms. At some point in the operation one of the helicopters crashed, either from technical failure or having been hit by gunfire from the ground. But it appears that no US commandos were injured. This suggests that the attackers had the advantage of surprise, and the defenders were taken completely off guard, probably lulled into a false sense of security by their seemingly invulnerable defences.
But was there not another, more important reason for the feeble show of resistance? Was their carelessness not the result of the confidence that they felt as the result of protection by the Pakistan army and ISI? For years the latter had concealed and protected Bin Laden, like an over-protective mother jealously protecting her pampered offspring. If there were the slightest indication of danger from any quarter, they would have immediately warned their favourite Saudi ally and taken steps to remove him.
The reason why the Americans could not find Bin Laden was resistance by the intelligence arm of the Pakistan military, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which claimed it wanted to lead the operation. In reality it wanted to conceal the fact that it was protecting the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Eventually the Americans got tired of this game. “I'm not saying that they're at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda is,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in May 2010.
Andrew Card, President Bush's former chief-of-staff, told ABC News: “The intelligence would frequently tease us. We would think that we were close to getting him. A couple of times we thought we actually got him, but we didn't.” Even when a senior al-Qaeda figure was identified and located, it often took weeks to get approval from the Pakistani authorities for an air strike. That is precisely why the US kept the whole mission secret from the Pakistanis and it also explains why its success was so devastatingly complete, with not a single US combatant killed.
US officials have described the operation as a “surgical raid”. They say that three adult males, including Bin Laden's son, were killed. But, they added that a woman, who was allegedly being used as a shield, was also killed. This is what is habitually referred to as “collateral damage”, as when a few days before, NATO bombed and killed Libyan rebel troops in Misrata.
“Dead or alive”?
On 18 September 2001, George W Bush, who has obviously seen too many John Wayne cowboy films, famously stated that the long arm of the US would get Bin Laden “dead or alive.” That statement has proved at least 50% correct. It is very clear that the men sent to “get” their victim had no intention whatsoever of capturing him alive.
When US forces finally captured Saddam Hussein, they did not hesitate to put him on display like a caged beast, subjecting him to every conceivable humiliation, including having his teeth examined before the television cameras. They put him on trial, although the result was a foregone conclusion. This was regarded as a tremendous propaganda coup. So why did they not do likewise with Bin Laden?
John Brennan told reporters that the commando team had been “able and prepared” to take Bin Laden alive “if he didn't present any threat”. It is alleged that the al-Qaeda leader refused to surrender and, therefore, was killed in an exchange of fire when he was shot twice in the head.
The leader of al-Qaeda was clearly made of sterner stuff than Saddam Hussein, and it is highly likely that he would refuse to surrender and fight to the end. What would he gain by surrendering himself to the same fate as Saddam? But if he was surprised in his bed in the middle of the night, was armed resistance possible? In any case, it is clear that his assailants gave him no opportunity to surrender.
Bin Laden was shot above his left eye, blowing away a section of his skull, and was also shot in the chest. His body was then flown to Afghanistan before being buried at sea “with religious rites according to the Islamic tradition”. US officials said this was to avoid his grave becoming a shrine. But the indecent haste with which they disposed of the body suggests a different motive.
In a macabre development, it seems that the entire operation was watched in real time in the White House by Mr Obama and his national security team in what Brennan said was “probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time” in the lives of those watching. When the fatal shots were fired Obama said: “We got him”. This is the language of a small and not very educated child playing a computer game.
“When we finally were informed that those individuals who were able to go in that compound and found an individual that they believed was Bin Laden, there was a tremendous sigh of relief,” he said. There is good reason why the death of one man should be the cause of so much relief.
The problem is easily stated: Bin Laden knew too much. If he were put on trial, he would undoubtedly have revealed the role of the CIA in promoting both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is an open secret that the US Central Intelligence Agency played an active role in arming and training the fundamentalists, including Bin Laden. He had to be silenced and he was silenced.
Involvement of the ISI
The attack has finally torn away the curtain from the myth of “national sovereignty” It was made without the knowledge or consent of the Pakistan government. Both the Pakistanis and the US have said Pakistan was not warned of the raid in advance. John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, said it had been “designed to minimise chances of engagement with Pakistani forces”.
In reality, they kept the Pakistanis in the dark because they knew that the information would instantly be passed on to Bin Laden via the ISI. After the US attack Pakistani troops arrived at the scene and secured the area in an attempt to prevent access to the compound and any awkward questions it might arouse.
The first question is: how was it possible for the most wanted man in the world to be living in a fortified compound on the outskirts of a town occupied by retired army officers and businessmen, right next to a Military Academy? The compound is in fact a few hundred metres from the Pakistan Military Academy, an elite military training centre, Pakistan's equivalent to Britain's Sandhurst or West Point in the USA. Pakistan's army chief is a regular visitor to the academy, where he attends graduation parades.
Moreover, the compound falls within Abbottabad's military cantonment, which is subject to tight controls by the army and Intelligence Services. Anyone who wishes to build or live in this area would have to undergo a series of checks by these state institutions. The whole area has a constant and significant military presence and checkpoints. It is unthinkable that Bin Laden and his armed supporters could occupy a residence in such an area without the knowledge and consent of the Pakistan military and Intelligence at the very highest levels.
For decades the Pakistan army and state has been intriguing in Afghanistan, which they wish to bring under their control, in line with the so-called theory of “defence in depth”. They see India as the main enemy and are preparing for the next war with their powerful neighbour, which possesses a bigger population, a stronger industrial base and a much bigger territory. The idea is to bind Afghanistan to Pakistan, so that in the event of a war with India, it could provide a hinterland for Pakistan. This idea has become an obsession for the upper ranks of the Pakistan army and especially for the ISI.
But there are even more substantial interests involved than military strategy or the Koran. The ISI is closely linked to the Afghan and Pakistani drug mafia, which presides over vast amounts of black money. These shadowy elements are in turn linked to the Taliban and its terrorist associates.
It is perfectly clear now, if it was not before, that the Pakistan army was involved in this at a very high level, and particularly the notorious ISI, who for years have been pursuing their own agenda in Afghanistan and who operate like a state within the state. Through all-pervading and corrosive corruption and the lavish distribution of drug money, the tentacles of the ISI extend to every part of the state and government.
The discovery that Bin Laden had been living in a large, custom-built, walled compound in Abbottabad close to Pakistan's military academy – possibly from as early as 2005 – has confirmed the Americans’ suspicions that the ISI has been harbouring Bin Laden. The deafening silence from Pakistan's security service is a most eloquent testimony to its guilt. This will have serious implications for the future relations between the USA and Pakistan.
Yet despite everything, they are tied together like Siamese twins. Like the latter, the relationship is not very comfortable, but there is no alternative but to put up with it. This is why, despite the loud public outrage in the USA over Pakistan’s role, both sides are being very cautious about what they say about each other. The Americans need Pakistan in order to wage war in Afghanistan. And Zardari needs Washington to keep his economy (and his government) afloat.
Effects in Pakistan
This is why the Americans are stressing so much that the Pakistanis were not involved, because they are worried about a militant backlash. But so far the response on the streets has been muted, with only a few scattered rallies by the fundamentalists. In Pakistan people are still stunned by the news of the attack. They find it hard to comprehend the fact that this man was living among them.
Conspiracy theories are naturally emerging on all sides, as they always do after such events. Some people even doubt whether the US has in fact succeeded in killing their arch-enemy. This is the result of the fact that they have already announced the death of Bin Laden on more than one occasion. The lack of a body only adds to the climate of suspicion. The US has said a video had been made of Bin Laden's burial but have not said yet whether it, or any photographs of Bin Laden's body, will be released.
Until they do so, all kinds of bizarre theories will continue to circulate. But there is no reason to believe that all this was just an elaborate piece of theatre cooked up in the Pentagon or the Oval Office. Washington had every reason to pursue its plans to assassinate Bin Laden to the end. It also had every reason to get rid of the body.
Zardari said that although the two countries had not worked together on the operation, “a decade of co-operation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama Bin Laden as a continuing threat to the civilised world". But he gave no explanation as to how Bin Laden had been able to live in comfort in Pakistan. He said only he "was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be”.
The Pakistani government is now in a very difficult position. On the one hand, the public are angry at this blatant violation of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the US is even more arrogant than before, and is now demanding to know whether any other wanted figures have found sanctuary in Pakistani territory.
These events have put Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in a very difficult position. He has denied that the killing of Osama Bin Laden in his country is a sign of its failure to tackle terrorism. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Mr Zardari said his country was “perhaps the world's greatest victim of terrorism”. But US officials have said Bin Laden must have had a support system in Pakistan. And even a blind man can see that this is the case. John Brennan said it was “inconceivable that Bin Laden did not have a support system” in Pakistan. And we agree with him.
In his article in the American press, Zardari said Pakistan had “never been and never will be the hotbed of fanaticism that is often described by the media”. For once, we can agree with him. The support for the fundamentalists in Pakistan has been greatly exaggerated in the western media, as pointed out by Lal Khan in his article Religious Fundamentalism and imperialism: friends or foes:
“Their anti-American rhetoric has not been able to gather wide support amongst the workers and the poor masses. This is in spite of a seething hatred against imperialist aggression amongst the vast majority of the masses. Most of the youth brought to their demonstrations are from the madrassas and they don’t know much about what is really going on.
“Electorally they have been a dismal failure. Only in 2002 did they manage to get 11% of the vote. But that was mainly due to rigging by the state agencies who wanted to use them in their own bargaining with imperialism. Even some of the terrorist attacks have been allegedly orchestrated for the same purpose.”
Zardari tells the Americans: “The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan's war as it is America's.” But the so-called war on terror has brought only misery and death to the people of Pakistan. “More of our soldiers have died than all of Nato's casualties combined. Two thousand police officers, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians and a generation of social progress for our people have been lost,” he writes.
The present government has displayed a slavish dependence on US imperialism that far exceeds anything seen in the past. Even Musharraf showed a greater degree of independence than Zardari and his clique. As a result, Pakistan has seen an increase in terror attacks, which are now greater than those in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Effects in the USA
The immediate effect in the USA was euphoria. When the news was announced on Sunday night, there were jubilant scenes in Washington, New York and around the US. People came to Ground Zero to demonstrate their joy at the elimination of the man who is believed to have ordered the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, as well as a number of other murderous bombings. One man said: “perhaps we can now have some closure and withdraw from Iraq.” Beneath the thin veneer of patriotic fervour these words betray an underlying dissatisfaction with US foreign adventures and a longing for peace.
The President praised the “heroes” who carried out the operations and, in a speech to congressional leaders, called for them to show “the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11”. But this is a vain wish. American society is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. In the short run, Obama will reap the benefit. It may even contribute to his re-election as “the man who ‘got’ Bin Laden.” But this is not certain. The euphoria over the death of Bin Laden will go away. The effects of the economic crisis will not.
The euphoria of the last 24 hours has no solid foundations. The explosive situation on a world scale was not created by Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. On the contrary, they are its reflection. Nor will the murder of one man change anything substantial. On the contrary, it will give rise to a desire for revenge that will be the starting point for new terrorist outrages.
Obama hailed the death of Bin Laden as "good day for America", and said the world was now a safer and a better place. This verdict is mistaken. In the very same speech he warned that the threat of terror attacks was not over. In the light of the possibility of reprisal attacks, security has been increased at embassies and airports. The US has closed its embassy and consulates in Pakistan. The world is now even less safe and more dangerous than it was two days ago.
The true significance of al-Qaeda
In pursuance of its aims imperialism always needs to create a monster, a sinister enemy that it can demonise, exaggerating its crimes and atrocities in order to justify the perpetration of its own, even greater crimes. In the past it was the “Huns”, the “Yellow Peril”, “the Red peril”, lately it has been al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The names change but the essence of the matter remains the same.
For the past decade the world’s media has systematically built up the image of a mythical Beast called al-Qaeda, an ultra-centralised and fanatically disciplined international organization dedicated to the destruction of western civilization. In reality, al-Qaeda was always a small organization with a marginal following in the Islamic world.
After its one major stunt – the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York – it has received blow after blow and has been declining ever since. If the centralised and disciplined terrorist organization ever existed, it has long since disappeared, to be replaced by a myriad of small groups in different countries, each pursing its own agenda. As for Bin Laden, he had long since disappeared from public view, confining his “activity” to the occasional badly recorded video.
From the standpoint of imperialism, in a struggle against a group like al-Qaeda what is required was precisely the method of “surgical strikes”, that is to say, the combination of good intelligence and police work with selective and limited armed intervention. It is not necessary to send vast numbers of troops and tanks to batter down armies and occupy countries, as the Americans have done. Such tactics are worse than useless in combating terrorism. In fact, by blundering around the world like an elephant in a tea-shop, they provide it with considerable assistance.
The best ally of Bin Laden and so-called al-Qaeda was in fact US imperialism. The rape of Iraq and Afghanistan gave a fresh impetus to the dark forces of terrorism by enraging a whole generation of young Muslims. But the tide of Revolution sweeping through the Arab world has completely exposed the myth of al-Qaeda. The millions of workers, peasants and youth who poured onto the streets showed the way to conduct a real struggle against the imperialists and their local agents. And despite the lying propaganda of the imperialists, the Islamic fundamentalists played no significant role in this marvellous mass movement.
State terror is far bloodier than the actions of any terrorist group. It is states that declare wars, drop atom bombs on towns like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, build concentration camps like the one in Guantanamo Bay, manipulate public opinion through the hired media. It is states that are cutting billions from health, education and pensions, while simultaneously handing billions to the bankers.
The state has refined its ability to kill people to a fine art. The latest “surgical strike” is a further demonstration of its murderous skills. We will shed no tears over a reactionary terrorist with the blood of thousands of people on his hands. But we condemn even more vehemently the crimes of imperialism, which is responsible for far more atrocities than Bin Laden and his crew were ever responsible for.
The fundamental flaw of all terrorism is the notion that small determined groups of armed men can overthrow the existing social order. This is an illusion. The state has sufficient resources to destroy any small armed group. The damage inflicted by terrorist actions is only superficial. It does not attack the foundations of the edifice. Such attacks actually serve to strengthen the existing regime, providing it with the excuses it needs to counterattack with devastating force. The events that followed the attack on the Twin Towers are a laboratory confirmation of this assertion.
The only force that can bring about a fundamental change in the situation is the revolutionary action of the masses. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are the most striking proof of that. The most penetrating comment on all this was by Robert Fisk in The Independent (Tuesday, 3 May 2011): “A middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.”
Referring to the danger of terrorist reprisals, and confirming our analysis, Fisk says:
“Revenge attacks? Perhaps they will come, by the little groupuscules in the West, who have no direct contact with al-Qa'ida. Be sure, someone is already dreaming up a ‘Brigade of the Martyr Osama bin Laden’.
“But the mass revolutions in the Arab world over the past four months mean that al-Qaeda was already politically dead. Bin Laden told the world – indeed, he told me personally – that he wanted to destroy the pro-Western regimes in the Arab world, the dictatorships of the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis. He wanted to create a new Islamic Caliphate. But these past few months, millions of Arab Muslims rose up and were prepared for their own martyrdom – not for Islam but for freedom and liberty and democracy. Bin Laden didn't get rid of the tyrants. The people did. And they didn't want a caliph.”
London, May 3, 2011