Killing a dead man
17 May 2011
Badshah Video Centre in Abbottabad hasn’t yet asked the CIA to pay the late fees on the enormous haul of unreturned movie blockbusters seized at Chez bin-Laden. In any case, they’re unlikely to get their money back because the Pakistani government’s diplomatic leverage over the US is at an all-time low.
The US Navy’s elite forensic clean-up team carried away anything that might constitute or conceal a document and as you read this, a team of intelligence analysts somewhere in Langley, Virginia, will be trawling through a huge pile of lousy pirated copies of Egyptian soapies and much else besides.
There will also be CDs and trashy novels, memory sticks and hard drives, shopping lists and notebooks, recipe books and commentaries on the Koran, microwave manuals and takeaway menu leaflets from Abbottabad’s celebrated Dragon Palace chinese restaurant. When you’ve been holed up for a decade, you’ve got to do something to keep busy and OBL was not, it seems, much of a gardener.
On the balance of the evidence the US hit team probably did kill OBL but in truth the man has been politically dead for years.
Holed up in his walled compound with only a couple of couriers connecting him to the outside world his ability to lead any movement was massively diminished, not only by near-total isolation, but of late by the larger non-terrorist reform movements sweeping the Arab world.
It is surely significant that no new video statements by OBL have recently emerged and that the running has been made by his deputy, al-Zawahiri. A short home-made video is risk-free in security terms, so why have no new sermons from the Emir of Terror emerged in these last years? It’s hard to be even the symbolic leader of a movement if you’re no longer seen. Perhaps his hibernation was a tactic designed to throw the Americans off the hunt, but perhaps also, it reflected a political isolation imposed upon him by the active jihadists. Perhaps they felt they were better off with him as an enigma.
It’s not generally realised that there are Taliban and Taliban. OBL was close to, and obviously depended on, the support of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whose officially defined goal is to establish their rule over Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Some intelligence analysts say the TTP’s attacks on the Pakistani government, police and army strain their relations with the Afghan Taliban, who, for foreign policy reasons enjoy widespread, if clandestine, support from the Pakistani military.
And the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Omar are no longer the Taliban that the US overthrew a decade ago. The young mullahs who ousted the Afghani warlords in 1996 are dead or grown into middle age and OBL was nothing but trouble for them. After the US invasion they took a rational decision to fade back into the villages and bide their time. Now they’re virtually running the provinces. In some form or another, they’ll end up running Afghanistan when Nato (meaning mostly the US) inevitably withdraws.
One way or another, actually or virtually, OBL had to die because the Great Osama Hunt had ran on for too long, spawning jokes, kids’ books, movies and general derision.
As far as American elites were concerned, once he’d provided an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, Osama bin Laden had outlived his political use-by date. In 2001 the Taliban government did, in fact, offer to extradite OBL if the yanks provided compelling proof linking him to the destruction of the Twin Towers – a procedure solidly in line with legal norms – but none was forthcoming. The man himself wasn’t owning up to it and the Yanks didn’t really want OBL, they wanted an excuse to invade the region.
When he was fighting the Russians, OBL was a useful tool, then he was a useful enemy, but in the end he was just a burden. Imperialism’s love-hate relationship with him finds a late echo in the mixed signals now coming out of the “intelligence community” where media sources, in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid, were split between those who felt that al-Qaida was just an inspirational franchise name with no meaningful central leadership and those who warned, darkly, that its organisational tentacles would continue to reach widely.
So far, not much has emerged from the intelligence treasure trove carried away in the US choppers. There have been deniable, off-the-record, claims that al-Qaida was planning to hit the US rail network (surely a low-value target) but these weren’t tied to material captured in the raid and, so far, there’s been no smoking 9/11 gun.
It’s said they captured the Osama bin Laden diaries (are they like the Hitler diaries?) and they’re said to include some musing to the effect that another 9/11 attack would be needed to get the US out of the Arab world. Maybe so. But that’s an observation that’s been made by countless millions, ranging from ordinary folk to the political elites.
The whole game has moved on. The new popular movements in North Africa and Arabia have sidelined the jihadist movement and left the old imperial powers struggling to find any political force they can reliably bribe, control and exploit.