The death of Osama bin Laden will not change the nature of the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates in the short-term. In fact, bin Laden's death, coupled with the nationalist-driven -- not Islamist-driven -- Arab Spring could lead bin Laden's followers to enhance efforts to attack Western targets in order to demonstrate that the global jihadist movement remains a potent force. However, as the largely muted reaction of the Arab world to bin Laden's death attests, the ideology of al Qaeda is waning. The death of bin Laden offers a symbolic moment of opportunity for key players in the region. They should all now utilize this moment to reassess and recalibrate the means by which they pursue their interests, as well as their regional postures and relationships: from the United States and Israel to Pakistan and the nations of the Arab Spring, to Islamist groups like Hamas.
The importance of the symbolism of the death of bin Laden is perhaps most palpable in the United States, where al Qaeda's mastermind orchestrated attacks that killed over 3,000 Americans. With any clear notion of "success" in Afghanistan becoming increasingly opaque, the death of bin Laden offers a chance for President Obama to begin to set in motion policies that he enunciated more than a year ago that would draw down the United States' military presence in the war-torn nation now that he has achieved the most critical objective for which the war was launched: decapitating the leadership and effectiveness of al Qaeda and its affiliates. The trove of documents seized at Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad is likely to lead to further intelligence and military advances. On the heels of such achievements, President Obama can confidently begin to withdraw American troops -- but in doing so he must ensure that key components of stability for the territory remain in place. The United States should encourage dialogue between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, even as it continues to track down the al Qaeda leaders, which the Taliban has aided and harbored. Key to any American withdrawal will be a negotiated agreement with the Taliban provided that the agreement insures that: 1) al Qaeda will not be allowed to operate from Afghani soil 2) a basic level of human rights and shared dignity for all people of Afghanistan is maintained, and 3) the integrity, security and stability of the neighboring nuclear armed state Pakistan is preserved.
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been questioned vociferously in the wake of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. President Obama's recent remarks that bin Laden was likely aided by a network of support in Pakistan, and the fact that his compound was found not far from Pakistan's premier military training facility, raises legitimate questions regarding the integrity of Pakistan's military elites, if not their competence, particularly that of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). The United States is now in a bind. Failure to maintain a close working relationship with Pakistan -- including the annual $3 billion in aid supplied by Congress for Pakistan's military -- and withdrawing from Afghanistan will become much more difficult tasks. Furthermore, Pakistan's delicate political stability, and its nuclear arms demand vigilant U.S. attention to ensure that those weapons do not wind up in the hands of terrorists.
Now as the United States considers recalibrating its policies vis a vis Pakistan, officials in Islamabad are under a bright spotlight. In an interview in 2008, former Pakistani General and then-President Pervez Musharraf told the television program, 60 Minutes, "We are not particularly looking for [Osama bin Laden], but we are operating against terrorists and al Qaeda and militant Taliban. And in the process, obviously, combined, maybe we are looking for him also." Such unconvincing answers can no longer be acceptable, either to the United States or to Pakistan, if their relationship is to endure. Pakistan should recognize the tide in the region is toward Arab nationalism and empowerment, and away from Islamism. To demonstrate that they are following suit, they should make announcements of their own that they have found figures such as al Qaeda number two Ayman Al-Zawahiri and others who are likely in similar hideouts in unsuspecting neighborhoods within Pakistan. Pakistan has legitimate security concerns in Afghanistan but it must now operate above the fray with the US to bring about a solution to the war-torn Afghanistan that meets both the American and Pakistani objectives. Pakistan can no longer have it both ways, and the message from the Obama administrating to that effect must be loud and clear.
Evidence that Osama bin Laden's ideology has failed the Middle East is appearing throughout the region. There were sporadic protests against his killing by U.S. forces, but most young people were busy in other protests -- against their corrupt rulers. It is prescient that bin Laden's message to the youth -- to rise up against the United States and Israel and restore Islamic law to the nations of the region -- could be so completely ignored. The current "Arab Spring" has been about rising up against the regional despots that have not provided the kind of opportunity and freedom that the West enjoys, and that bin Laden detested. That the region-wide protests today have been organized heavily by the utilization of modern technological tools developed in the West, like Facebook and Twitter, and that they have been the result of peaceful, not violent protests, only adds insult to injury to the al Qaeda mindset.
Today, the people of Syria are demanding change not through the suicide-bombing means of al Qaeda, but by chanting "salmiya" -- peaceful -- in the streets. Going forward, the reforming nations of the region and the United States should take lessons from this rejection of Al Qaeda's ideology. As the nations craft new systems of government, they must be focused on genuine political freedom and economic opportunity that restores the dignity for which the protesters yearn. Furthermore, the United States must be clear in its support for the development of such policies and its opposition to the indiscriminant killings not only conducted by Muammar al Gaddafi's forces in Libya, but now by Bashar al-Assad's in Syria as well.
Finally, the death of Osama bin Laden should send a clear message, both symbolic and real, to Islamists: Violent extremism will not be tolerated in the new Middle East, and no terrorist leader is immune to bin Laden's fate. In particular, Hamas should be paying attention to this message -- and perhaps they are. After bin Laden's death, Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh made headlines by condemning the killing of bin Laden, whom he described as "an Arab holy warrior." The West's condemnation of Haniyeh's statement was swift, particularly as Hamas was intending to sign a unity agreement with Fatah in a pact that seeks to maintain Western aid for the newly united Palestinian political front. Days later, after the unity agreement signing ceremony in Cairo, Hamas' Damascus-based chief Khaled Meshal articulated a much more moderate message, stating:
We are talking now about a common national agenda. The world should deal with what we are working toward now, the national political program... a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return.
However, when pressed whether an agreement along these lines would be considered an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Meshal responded, "I don't want to talk about that." But if Hamas is to survive as a political entity seeking the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, he will need to answer that question. The transition from terrorist to political organization requires a renunciation of violence and the removal of the clause that calls for Israel's destruction in Hamas' charter.
Last weekend, recognizing that international aid for the Palestinian Authority is in jeopardy if Hamas maintains its hard-line views and support for violence, Meshal sounded an even more moderate tone, stating "First allow the Palestinian people to live on their lands freely... to establish their independent state... then ask the Palestinian people, its government and leaders about their position towards (recognizing) Israel." Even more, Hamas forces in Gaza broke up a rally of Salafists decrying the murder of bin Laden 10 days ago. In the face of what appears to be a moderating trend within Hamas, the United States and Israel should not allow their skepticism to create undue roadblocks to Hamas' maturation from terrorism to politics. Instead, a wait-and-see policy is in order, one that pressures Meshal's Hamas to match his new moderate rhetoric by following the footsteps of Fatah, permanently renouncing violence as a mean by which to attain statehood. This would be a first good step toward being taken seriously by the international community.
The people of the Middle East understand the power of symbolism. The videos released by the United States depicting Osama bin Laden rehearsing video remarks with his beard dyed jet black indicates that he was well-aware of his own self-image, and the power of demonstrating a symbol of a vibrant jihadist leader. Now, in his death, more potent symbols are being conveyed as lessons to be learned: that violence and extremism fail the people of the region, misread their aspirations for freedom and opportunity, and will ultimately be defeated, regardless of how long it takes.
A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on 5/13, and can be accessed here.
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