On many occasions during my lectures at the Police CBRN Centre and to the National Health Service Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART) and to other emergency services fora, I have been asked the question ‘is Bin Laden still alive’? Consistently I answered yes. Despite many rumours circulating that he had problems with his kidneys and was in imminent danger I always felt that if he had died naturally there would have been arrangements in place for that to have been communicated to the media. The so-called ‘core’ of Al Qaeda would have wished to commemorate his passing if he had died of natural causes. It would have been an opportunity to rally those who had not yet fully become engaged in Jihad – a point that Bin Laden repeatedly alluded to in his messaging.
Today if asked that question I would be giving a very different answer. After nearly ten years of avoiding the United Statesmilitary machine the 1st of May saw the demise of the man generally accepted as the leader of Al Qaeda at the hands of United States Special Forces operating insidePakistan.
Paradoxically the person who was arguably the world’s most wanted man was living in a huge compound less than a few hundred metres away from the Pakistani equivalent of theRoyalMilitaryAcademyatSandhurstat a place called Abbottabad – where studies on counter terrorism would have featured highly in the curriculum. The irony of this will not be lost of those who have long said that Bin Laden was living inPakistan.
The circumstances of his death and the repeated denials by leading Pakistani political figures concerning Bin Laden’s whereabouts will fuel a lot of discussions in the next few days. Coming as it does at a time when relations between theUnited Statesand the Pakistani intelligence apparatus have reached a new low, the timing of this operation will inevitably provide more ammunition for those that wish to deride Pakistani political leader’s efforts at containing Islamic extremism.
Whilst the political commentary will no doubt fill the airwaves over the next few days, it is worthwhile just spending a few moments looking at the implications of the death of Osama Bin Laden for theUnited Kingdom. Whilst it is a parochial view, it is important. Two critical dates are fast approaching. The First is the tenth anniversary of the attacks in 2001 that gave Bin Laden is notoriety. The second is the Olympics in 2012, with just over 400 days to go before the opening ceremony. Both of these dates provide anyone currently angered by the death of Bin Laden with an ideal opportunity for revenge. Prime Minister David Cameron was right to sound a cautious note when he welcomed the events inPakistan. Now is not the time to let down our guard.
Whilst many had come to see Osama Bin Laden has the head of Al Qaeda, in practice his position was more symbolic that being in day-to-day management of the organisation, if indeed it is right to refer to Al Qaeda in that way. Osama Bin Laden had clearly come to rely upon a small network of trusted couriers to travel on his behalf carrying messages and instructions to intermediaries and franchise group leaders. It was that reliance that led to his eventual downfall.
Media commentary surrounding his death noted that the compound in which he was found had no internet or phone connections. That is hardly surprising given the obvious understanding that Al Qaeda has developed of the methods of western intelligence agencies. Bin Laden’s number two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who remains at large and now becomes de facto the head of Al Qaeda, also appears to have to rely upon couriers to get his messages out to the media, such as Al Jazeera. The time it took Zawahiri to react to events inEgyptprovides an indicator of the degree of dislocation of the senior members of the command team from the various groups or franchises that have adopted the Al Qaeda ideology and terrorist tactics.
We can no doubt expect a eulogy from Zawahiri to Bin Laden to be published shortly. It will be interesting to see how long that takes to appear. The time delays in making and releasing such statements are indicative of an organisation that does not enjoy the same degree of manoeuvre room it once exploited. A eulogy that appears in days may well have been pre-prepared. One that takes several weeks to appear – which is not uncommon when past key members of Al Qaeda have been killed – will provide further evidence of the degree of dislocation that the so-called ‘core’ of Al Qaeda is currently experiencing.
Whilst many will wish to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden, it is appropriate to caution those who may feel that this singular event will now see the ultimate demise of an organisation that was already getting behind the curve in terms of dictating events in the aftermath of the Jasmine Spring inEgyptandTunisia.
From a practical viewpoint, Al Qaeda had already largely distributed its management structures into a range of loosely federated franchises each with their own agenda, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). How these groups react is important. They are unlikely to give up terrorism anytime soon. The threat from Islamic extremism is not about to suddenly change. Indeed it is possible to argue that Bin Laden has once again wrong footed the western world by organising Al Qaeda into a more resilient distributed structure that can carry on after his death. The organisation has a proven ability to re-structure and reform itself.
From the viewpoint of the United Kingdomit is likely that little will change. Al Qaeda’s twin-track approach of encouraging some to participate in what has become known as ‘individual Jihad’ alongside the more traditional group-based terrorism Londonwitnessed on the 7th of July 2005 is still intact. The case load in the Security Services is unlikely to dramatically decrease overnight. If anything it could increase as some people become more active, seeking to become involved in some dramatic revenge attack. Recent evidence of the nature of radicalisation that is occurring in some British universities suggests that the problem of Islamic extremism is if anything growing in some parts of our communities.
This is therefore not a time for celebration. Whilst the scenes in Washington and New York are understandable for a nation that has had to invest vast sums of blood and treasure in the aftermath of September 11th 2001 it would be unwise to see any images of the body of Osama Bin Laden trailed in the media. A picture that purports to have been taken by one of the people on the raid and reportedly sent to his father in the United States is already circulating on the Internet. If true, one could be tempted to ask do these people not understand the power of the media?
Reports that suggest Bin Laden was buried at sea provide hope that some practical lessons have been learnt after the way that imagery of Saddam Hussein was trailed in the international media. Despite all he had done it was unhelpful to humiliate him in public. It offended Arab sensibilities and alienated many from the nascent political process underway inIraqat the time. It was a setback that cost a lot of people their lives as the insurgency grew in strength. It is vital that in such situations we do not pay lip service to the notion that ideas can be learnt from past experiences. It should be mandatory that such lessons become enshrined in emergent doctrine.
As to a fitting epitaph for Osama Bin Laden, that is very difficult to imagine. That he was a man with a very specific vision of the grievances faced by many in the Arab world can be in little doubt. He was able to frame messages that chimed with many in theMiddle East. In some circles his death will only increase his popularity.
However his interpretation of Islam and his woeful disregard for human life – no matter what race, ethnicity or background from where they came – leads one to conclude that his passing will not be one mourned by many in the western world. As to whether or not his death will see the ultimate demise of Al Qaeda, time alone will tell. Many commentators have written that the end of Al Qaeda is nigh on several occasions in the last few years, only to be surprised at the durability of the organisation. It is for that reason that I doubt we are about to see the end of Al Qaeda sponsored terrorism in theUnited Kingdom. If anything, in the short term, we just may see the situation deteriorate.
Policing Today Security Correspondent, Dave Sloggett