The killing of Osama bin Laden

Irfan Hussain & Shahed Sadullah

The killing of Osama bin Laden, in the bedroom of his apparently long-established compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on 2 May instantly made headlines around the world. The raid by the US Navy Seals unit, operating in secret inside Pakistan, was a critical moment in America’s war on terror. The conduct of the mission nevertheless raised a series of issues that will not subside quickly, not least of which has been the question of whether bin Laden should have been captured alive and put on trial. In geopolitical terms, the most difficult challenge the US government now faces is the immediate damage caused to its relationship with Pakistan, principally on account of the raid’s blatant invasion of Pakistani sovereignty. Global asked two Pakistani journalists, Irfan Husain, columnist with Dawn, and Shahed Sadullah of The Daily Jang, to give their views on the event itself, assess whether it was justified, and consider the likely longer-term impact on US-Pakistani relations.

In a perfect world, Osama bin Laden would have been captured by the US Seal commandos on 2 May and put on trial for his role in the 9/11 attacks, as well as several other terrorist atrocities. As it was, he met a cruder and crueller form of justice in his Abbottabad hide-out.


Irfan Hussain: It was a quick and happy end

In a perfect world, Osama bin Laden would have been captured by the US Seal commandos on 2 May and put on trial for his role in the 9/11 attacks, as well as several other terrorist atrocities. As it was, he met a cruder and crueller form of justice in his Abbottabad hide-out.

Had bin Laden been brought out of Pakistan alive, the first question to have arisen would have been one of jurisdiction: his crimes were planned and launched from Afghanistan, and were carried out in the USA, the UK, Yemen, Kenya, Indonesia and Spain. Assuming that he was flown to Guantanamo Bay, he would have been tried by a military tribunal. But, given the patchy record and low credibility of the system, his supporters would have claimed that he was not getting a fair hearing.

A trial in a US federal court would have immediately run into problems with jury selection: would it really have been possible to find 12 unbiased jurors? Also, how would the immense security measures surrounding such high-profile proceedings have been carried out? And if bin Laden had chosen to deny any role in the many terrorist attacks he was accused of, would it have been possible to assemble sufficient evidence to convict him?

Even though some senior al-Qaeda figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been caught, the fact that much of their testimony was obtained under severe duress might well have tainted most of it. And although bin Laden had himself recorded video and audio tapes in which he appeared to gloat over the success of various attacks, it would have been difficult to conclude that he was guilty of planning them. In most of his recorded statements, he was always careful to talk in general terms, avoiding taking any personal responsibility for the mayhem al-Qaeda has caused over the last 15 years.

In his defence, bin Laden would probably have summoned a large number of witnesses from Saudi, Pakistani, British and US intelligence to testify to his close links with their agencies throughout the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The truth is that in this period, he was very much in the good books of those undercover outfits as he helped to orchestrate the arrival of Arab volunteers into Pakistan, and their logistic support in Afghanistan.

Detailed testimony from retired and serving officials would obviously have embarrassed their governments, while refusing to authorise them to testify would have weakened the credibility of the proceedings.

And if bin Laden had been found guilty, in either a military tribunal or a federal court in the USA, and subsequently sentenced to death, his execution would have been seen as victors’ justice pronounced on a Muslim hero. His grave, wherever it was, would have become a shrine. Burial at sea would not have been an option, and nor would cremation. And almost certainly, the entire trial would have been closely scrutinised across the Islamic world for any sign of bias. In a sense, the judicial system itself would have been on trial.

In another scenario, bin Laden could have proclaimed his responsibility for 9/11 and other terrorist attacks and proceeded to use the trial as a platform for his denunciation of the West.  His supporters would have turned him into a latter-day Saladin, standing up for the Muslim ummah (nation). Again, his execution would have been seen as the martyrdom of a freedom fighter.

When bin Laden was killed, he had become largely irrelevant to the various militant groups currently fighting under the banner of global jihad. At best, he served as a symbol of resistance without having any operational role in the struggle. By providing him with the publicity that a long-drawn-out trial would have generated, there was the risk of elevating him in the eyes of his followers, re-energising the al-Qaeda brand, and radicalising more young Muslims. A charismatic personality like bin Laden would almost certainly have used his moment in the spotlight to repeat his litany of grievances against the West – we should remember that many of his charges still resonate among millions of Muslims.

For much of his life, bin Laden expressed his strong desire for martyrdom. Having been granted his wish, let’s move on and leave him in his watery grave.


Shahed Sadullah: The raid left Pakistan feeling violated

The Abbottabad raid, which resulted in the elimination of Osama bin Laden, is being described by both the USA and Pakistan as a turning point in their troubled relationship, albeit for very different reasons. For the USA, this is another ‘are you with us or against us’ moment. The US administration appears to have called time on Pakistan, asking it to make its final choice on which way it intends to go. It can either continue with its ‘strategic depth’ theory and maintain its support for certain sections of the Afghan Taliban as well as other extremist groups which it regards as ‘assets’, or it can, once and for all, cut its ties with these groups and renounce terror as an instrument of state policy.

For Pakistan, the turning point has come because it can no longer bear its sovereignty being treated like a rag doll by the USA. The deeply unpopular drone attacks have continued – and with increasing ferocity – in spite of Pakistan’s repeated protestations to the contrary. Quite apart from the huge loss of life these have caused – mostly innocent lives in the public’s perception – each time such an attack takes place, it makes Pakistanis feel as if they have been violated.

The Abbottabad affair, with US troops landing on Pakistani soil and having their way for the better part of three-quarters of an hour without even so much as informing any Pakistani authority, amounted to a prolonged public rape. For a country in which emotion is the most powerful political factor, it was too much to bear.

The insinuation that Pakistan is, in the words of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, “playing it both ways”, cuts Pakistanis to the quick. If that is the case, they argue, why is it that Pakistan has lost 35,000 people in terror-related incidents since 2001 – almost 12 times the number of people killed in 9/11? Why is it, they ask, that Pakistani’s cooperation was relied on fully, without presenting any security problems, when al-Qaeda activists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Abu Faraj al-Libbi were apprehended, activists who played a much more important role on the ground than bin Laden? Why, even after Abbottabad, has Pakistan been the target of two big terror attacks in less than a month if it was in cahoots with bin Laden and shielding him? And why, if Pakistan was protecting bin Laden, would the Pakistani authorities have been so stupid as to put him in the centre of a cantonment town rather than in some remote village in the back of beyond?

Indeed, to most Pakistanis, the security argument used by the USA for keeping Pakistan out of the loop sounds thin. The fact that bin Laden was killed when it should not have been difficult to capture an unarmed 54 year old who for years had been on a dialysis machine is another issue that sits uneasily with many Pakistanis. It raises the question whether killing an unarmed man, dumping his body in the sea and then proclaiming that justice has been done are the sort of Western values for which the war on terror is being fought?

Even Pakistani liberals, who have no sympathy whatsoever for al-Qaeda, its aims or its methods, argue that if bin Laden had been taken alive and if he had then been convicted of the 9/11 attacks, or better still if he had confessed – a lot of ‘ifs’ that were never likely to happen – it would have put to rest many of the conspiracy theories that still circulate in Pakistan about 9/11 and al-Qaeda’s involvement in it. To that extent, it would have helped many in the country come face to face with the war on terror as it is, not as it exists in their minds.

Abbottabad has made Pakistan feel humiliated and naked on an international stage. It has also jeopardised future Pakistani cooperation with the USA. And yet, paradoxical as it may sound, out of all this some good may come. For the first time, the dubious parameters of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the use of jihadi units as an instrument of state have come into the public domain, as is the army’s role in foreign affairs. If Pakistan makes the correct decision on these vital issues, Abbottabad may not have been quite the unmitigated disaster that most Pakistanis believe.

About the author:

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn, a widely circulated English daily newspaper in Pakistan.

Shahed Sadullah is Editor at The Daily Jang, Pakistan's oldest newspaper.


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