Osama and the Islamic Bomb

In the wake of the successful mission to kill Osama Bin Laden and end his career of terror, much attention has focused on possible reprisals by the Al Qaeda organization. Will his followers attempt an attack here? In Israel? Or perhaps in Asia, Africa or the developing world. These are pressing questions, but there is one crucial fact that emerges from the discovery of his hideout that dwarfs all others: its location. Osama spent the last six years, apparently, smack dab at the heart of the Pakistani military industrial complex, the same complex that holds the keys to the Islamic bomb.

In the decade since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, many people from George Bush on down have raised the spectre of Al Qaeda obtaining a nuclear weapon. It was speculated Al Queda might attempt to buy a nuclear bomb or radioactive materials from renegade elements of the Soviet armed forces, or in shadowy international arms bazaars. Since Al Qaeda made no secret of its desire to destabilize Muslim governments, it was also speculated, separately, that Osama might try to convert Pakistan to his cause. Pakistan has always been the prize in the region because it has the Islamic Bomb. The scenario was not entirely far fetched despite our close ties with the Pakistani government because, it was also believed, Osama was living in a cave in the lawless part of Pakistan that has become a stronghold of Taliban forces. It turns out that the danger was, and may remain, much greater. Osama was not merely living in Pakistan, he was living in the largest house in the Pakistani equivalent of West Point.

To understand the significance of Osama's hideout in Abbottabad, it is necessary to understand the role of the military in Pakistani history. Pakistan was, of course, part of British India. During British rule, Muslims and Hindus alike comprised the Sepoys, or Indian troops. However, over time, Muslims achieved success in the military whereas the larger Hindu population came to dominate civic institutions. As Gandhi's Congress party grew to become the main vehicle of Indian independence, M.A. Jinnah developed the Muslim League to protect the interests of Muslims whom he thought would be lost in a Hindu-dominated India. With independence, the Muslims declined to sit in the Indian parliament and with partition, Pakistan never pursued the full throated democracy that evolved in India. Pakistan did, however, develop an exceptional military organization that has dominated Pakistani politics ever since. In his autobiography, former President Pervez Musharraf talks about the formative role played by the Pakistan Military Academy, or PMA, in shaping not only his career but that of several generations of Pakistani leaders. In a country without deep democratic roots, the military rather than civic bodies became the most important institution. And it turns out Osama Bin Laden after fleeing the helicopters at Bora Bora found his way, physically right to the heart of it.

In coming weeks, we should learn more about the presence of Bin Laden in the Pakistani West Point where young Pakistani officers study battles and old ones retire. It is possible that Osama's presence there was entirely unknown and unsuspected by the officers living around him. However, it is also possible his choice of hideouts was not an accident. It is vital for Western intelligence to assess whether Osama's geographic pilgrimage to the keepers of the keys to the Islamic Bomb was in any way indicative of progress in acquiring one.