It is nearly two weeks now since the death of Osama Bin Laden. This is the point at which the news media start to exhaust all of their various angles on the event itself and move onto trying to obtain insights concerning the much heralded treasure-trove of intelligence information that emerged from the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was found. Snippets are emerging suggesting that Bin Laden was ‘obsessed’ with the idea of conducting another major attack on the tenth anniversary of the attack that brought him so much notoriety. More recent media coverage has also suggested that the newly-appointed, albeit on a temporary basis, leader of Al Qaeda, Sayif al-Adel, has suggested that the United Kingdom is very much in his thoughts when it comes to taking revenge for the death of Bin Laden. One emerging theme from the initial analysis of the intelligence information collected from the compound is that Bin Laden’s interest in mass casualty attacks had not diminished. Railways and other mass transportation systems remained in his crosshairs. Al Qaeda’s preoccupation with the airline industry remains intact.
Bin Laden’s calculus was simple. The more Americans that are killed in mass casualty attacks, the closer the political leadership in the United States will move to withdrawing from its involvement in the Middle East. Drive the Americans out of the Middle East, the tyrant regimes will collapse and a new Caliphate will emerge. Recent events have clearly demonstrated that it was not Al Qaeda’s actions that caused the various political changes to occur in the Middle East. Rather, it was people power fuelled by the dynamics of social networking sites.
In the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, many of those who felt compelled to mark his passing turned to those very same social networking sites to express their anger and grief at his passing. Such immediate emotional reactions are understandable for those that have seen Bin Laden as a heroic figure; fighting for a cause. Many have published eulogies to Bin Laden. Some using his death as a way of re-branding his image using words that highlight his meagre lifestyle; emphasising his pious devotion to Islamic ritual and his many ‘kindly’ acts towards people that he met. That is one view that people with a specific agenda are trying to propagate. Lamenting his death but also using it as a means to try and inspire others to take up jihad.
In contrast, official releases from the United States Government have hinted at a lifestyle that was not quite so stark and the presence of pornography in Bin Laden’s own video collection. There is clearly a revised battle of the narratives that will continue for some time, as those involved in the media war of words battle it out in the social networking sites and wider media to define the his legacy. For those involved in that war of words care needs to be taken. Any attempt to apparently denigrate Bin Laden may have unforeseen outcomes.
The horrific attack on army recruits in Pakistan apart – where over 80 were killed in a double suicide bombing at their barracks as they were heading home for some weekend leave – the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s death has not been marked by any specific act of violence in Western Europe. Given the warnings about the levels of radicalisation that are occurring in the region many may wonder why an attack, even a random act by a gunman in a major built up area, has not occurred. It would be premature in the extreme to think that just because some immediate event has not occurred that something will not happen shortly. We are entering a window of vulnerability that will last until the closing ceremony is held at the Olympic Games, where any act of violence could be attributed to being conducted in revenge for the death of Bin Laden.
That window of vulnerability changes with time. The immediate aftermath and the threat of a lone wolf attack may well recede. Ironically, however, the longer that we go without an attack the likelihood of a major mass casualty event increases. Events like those that happened in London in July 2005 take time to plan if they are to have a major impact. Despite the calls on social networks for acts of individual jihadist to avenge the death of Bin Laden many may not be prepared to sell their lives cheaply. They see the merit in planning and waiting for an opportunity to create major headlines. In the medium term, a few months out, September 11th 2011 (11-9-11) awaits those who wish to mark the anniversary of the attacks in the United States wherever they may live. For those wishing to act as a group, attacking several targets at once to create confusion and make it hard for the emergency services to respond, time is on their side. They can plan carefully to have a major impact.
The problem for the Olympic Security people is the longer that times passes and the closer we get to the start of the Olympic Games, the greater the chance of an attack that is associated with the Games or one of the peripheral events. In mathematics it could be described as an inverse time law – the probability of an attack is proportional to the inverse of the time remaining before the opening ceremony.
The announcement this week of the route of the Torch Relay will not have gone unnoticed. The cultural events associated with the Games are part of the overall celebration that those planning the Olympics wish to create. An attack on any aspect of the celebrations would create media interest by association. The potential target list is therefore huge and creates a major headache for those tasked with planning the response. Any change to the current United Kingdom threat level, which is at severe, is highly unlikely until after the Olympic Games and the Para-Olympic Games are over. It is ironic that the death of Bin Laden should come at a time when it opens a window of vulnerability ahead of the Olympic Games. Arguably it could not have come at a worse time.