Osama Bin Laden once said that he worshiped death, while his enemies worshiped life. Yet al Qaeda's original Dr. Evil and Global Terror's bête noir did not go out in a blaze of glory at a time of his own choosing, but rather was summarily dispatched by U.S. Navy Seals in his own bedroom.
In the near term and for the next few months, Western intelligence and security forces will be very concerned by any response to his death. It is highly likely that al Qaeda has been preparing for this eventual scenario, which, considering the focus in finding/killing him, was always a fairly predictable outcome. Governments will be particularly worried that there are potential sleeper cells that have been activated to respond in order to restore the narrative of al Qaeda's potency now that its figurehead rests at the bottom of the sea. A reminder of the continued threat to Europe from al Qaeda came as recently as last Friday, when three men were arrested in Germany for posing a "concrete and imminent danger" to the nation.
However, this threat is weakened by the fact that bin Laden's command and control over the al Qaeda network has been incredibly limited since his flight from Afghanistan to a compound in central Pakistan that is reported not to have been connected to the internet or to the mains electricity.
Indeed al Qaeda is both an organization and an ideology that, since the loss of its Afghan haven in 2001, has been characterized by the diffuse and independent nature of its cells and their ability to plan autonomous operations against targets across the world.
Al Qaeda did not exist under Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq until the invasion of 2003, after which it proliferated and only was tamed when its grand plans for an Islamic Emirate in Iraq was rejected by the country's tribes, backed up by the financial and military logistical assistance of the Americans. The irrelevance of bin Laden to al Qaeda in Iraq was best demonstrated by his arguments with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over the targeting of Shi'a Iraqis.
Meanwhile the steady deterioration of the central government's control over Yemen has seen the emergence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009. In October of last year a senior U.S. official told MSNBC that despite the growing threat from al Qaeda in Yemen and Africa, al Qaeda in Pakistan -- meaning bin Laden -- "remains the most dangerous" and "the most vital target" in the war. Although bin Laden was not directly involved in any terrorist plots, the official said he was "still active in providing suggestion for possible targets, tactics, and ultimate approval" for operations. Al Qaeda threats in order were: Pakistan; Yemen; Somalia; North Africa; Iraq; and Afghanistan.
Now that bin Laden is dead, serious questions will be asked of whether Pakistan deserves to remain at the top of the threats tree. There are real concerns around the intentions of the Pakistani government towards al Qaeda, a group that they once supported. The fact that bin Laden was located close to Islamabad, right under the noses of one of Pakistan's military academies, gives rise to the argument that the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani military were incompetent at best and complicit at worst. A crucial question remains: how and when the Pakistani authorities were kept in the loop of the operation.
The official line is that the Pakistani government has had a good history of information sharing with the United States. Although very much a partisan figure, former-President Musharraf's criticism of the U.S. operation is likely to speak to a majority of ordinary Pakistanis who feel that President Obama has steadily escalated America's violation of Pakistan's sovereignty since he was elected through drone strikes and Special Forces raids. The response of both the Pakistani government and their public will be a key litmus test of the effect of the bin Laden killing.
Indeed beyond any immediate response the biggest question is whether bin Laden the myth is a more potent recruitment tool than bin Laden the man.
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