Regardless of your feelings on the methods used to kill Osama Bin Laden or your opinions on their just nature, it is somewhat relieving to wake up this morning to a world with one less unscrupulous person in it willing to kills thousands of people.
What happens now? Will Al-Qaeda cease to exist? Will we see a dramatic fall in terrorist plots and those murdered by them?
Probably not. This is for two reasons, one structural and one symbolic:
Al-Qaeda has not got a rigid hierarchy in the form of a triangle with Bin Laden at the top presiding. Members of a broader terrorist group may be unaware of the vast majority of other members, their relative size and capability and most importantly their plans. The group is broken down into reasonably autonomous cells who have infrequent communication with leadership by which they receive often vague directions and objectives, they are not nearly as well planned out, regimented and organised as they can appear. This ‘cell’ structure has inherent benefits, it means that if one cell is neutralised by national security forces the others continue, there are no weak links in the chain to break because the cells aren’t connected by very much. The members of the cell (who may be taken off for extraordinary rendition in the unlikely event they are captured alive) are ignorant of the activities of the other cells, their members or locations. This fragmented nature serves these dangerous, isolated and undeniably disturbed people well when they have agreed to lay down their lives for a cause, they don’t feel the need to demand legitimacy from the leadership or to play a role in decision making. So killing the head of such an organisation is frankly unlikely to derail their plans for long, the cells have their orders and some may even be unaware of the news of the loss of their leader.
The symbolic effect of murdering Bin Laden is much more hard to quantify or draw in a neat diagram. The people who serve the ideals he represents are not ones to feel despair at his loss. They serve a greater purpose more important than a single life, this is evidenced by their total willingness to die for the organisation. They are not going to have a mourning period or take some time to reflect on their next steps. They are psychologically damaged, brainwashed, radicalised, angry and isolated from society. They will lash out at the nearest target or if they had existing plans that could be sped up the one they feel will hurt the people who murdered him most. This is not good news for the Global North, we may have incurred the wrath of very dangerous people who have been driven into a frenzy of hatred and are now more than willing to take risks and try untested plans. They may reach out their feelers into countries like the United Kingdom or the USA and activate cells lying dormant, we cannot be complacent or expect reprisal to take place in a small town north of Islamabad, it may well take place much closer to home, if at all.
I wanted to discuss the nature of the incident that resulted in Bin Laden’s murder. Notice I have chosen to use the word murder, I did so to imply the lack of justice in yesterday’s events. He was killed by soldiers, in secret and without trial. This smacks of extra-judicial killing, of ignoring the judicial process and of failing to take the opportunity to kick start the process by which people can come to terms with the horror that he caused them. Make no mistake, I am by no means upset at hearing of his death, quite the opposite, but I cannot be completely satisfied at the way it was conducted. Yes Bin Laden is a military target so by international law his murder was legitimate and legal but he has committed crimes against humanity and for that simply being shot in a firefight just isn’t good enough. I would have much preferred to see him dragged to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, televised across the world, and receive thousands of consecutive life sentences. Why would I have preferred this option? For three reasons, one is that it is justice, it is how international law works, the second is that the imagery of the Coalition’s capture of Bin Laden is a potent tool in the fight against terrorism and thirdly because without truth, openness and accountability the people that Bin Laden hurt will struggle to heal.
Bin Laden is an international criminal and frankly being shot by a marine isn’t how the judicial system works, he needed to stand trial and accept his punishment. The former is an easy way out for him. However the United States struggles with the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court so would probably have refused to allow him to stand trial there and Bin Laden himself would have dismissed it and had a greater opportunity to appear as a martyr.
The imagery of the Coalition’s capture of ‘public enemy number one’ could have been extremely useful from a publicity perspective. I have noted before his followers are unlikely to be put off by his loss, quite the reverse, but his being brought to justice would have shown the public, from Afghanistan to America and every where in between that the Coalition is in control, succeeding and that terrorism will always fail and you will always lose.
Finally the question of healing is very important. His standing trial and being sentenced would have acted as closure. His questioning and the presentation of evidence would have shed light on the mystique around him. He would have been shown as ‘just a person’ or ‘a damaged, frightened and angry man’. The friends and families of those murdered by him would be able to look at his face in the dock, and think ‘we won, justice will be served, it wasn’t futile’. A moment of ecstasy, as demonstrated by the parties erupting across the United States, or a burst of jubilation isn’t going to help them recover emotionally from the damage he did. What we need is truth – why did he do those things? Even if the answer is nonsensical, then at least we know he is insane and can close the book psychologically on the pain and loss and move forwards.
Osama Bin Laden’s killing is good because it has slightly reduced the number of terrorists in the world, but it wasn’t justice, it won’t help the people he hurt recover and it was a missed opportunity to show the world how effective anti-terrorist military activity can be.