The death of Osama bin Laden ends the story of a man who had, over the last decade, dominated much of the news around the world, even after he disappeared from the public eye – presumably into the mountains of the Pak-Afghan frontier – following the 9/11 attacks. A hero to some and a villain to many, Bin Laden remained, till his last moments, the symbolic leader of Al-Qaeda, even if there is some doubt as to how much actual command he wielded in terms of the day-to-day running of the world’s most feared terrorist outfit. The delighted reaction over his death in a US operation that has poured in from many parts of the world is thus expected. While Washington has led the chorus, the rest of the West has chimed in. Not unexpectedly, India and Afghanistan have wasted no time in repeating their allegations of Pakistan harbouring terrorists. Within Pakistan though, except amongst the extremist outfits, there will be relief that a man whose operatives claimed lives in cities everywhere is no more.
Certainly, the astonishing manner in which the operation that resulted in Bin Laden’s death – the news of what had happened broke first on Geo TV – leaves us all gasping in astonishment. Bin Laden, and it appears that at least two other persons including a woman, were killed in what the US says was a gun-fight, as helicopters swooped towards the palatial house where he, his guards and some family members apparently lived. This estate stood not in some remote, mountain valley but in a peaceful Abbotabad suburb, only kilometres away from the Kakul Military Academy. The failure of Pakistan to detect the presence of the world’s most wanted man here is shocking – though there is still a lack of clarity as to what role, if any, our security and intelligence apparatus played in the whole affair. It is hard to believe that foreign aircraft could have flown so deep into our territory undetected and unanticipated. Delay in any kind of official response only added to the initial confusion, with a Foreign Office spokesperson finally issuing a statement after an emergency meeting at the presidency that the action against Bin Laden had been carried out in line with US policy to go after him anywhere in the world. President Obama has meanwhile spoken of Pakistani cooperation and discussion with President Zardari regarding the operation, and Prime Minister Gilani has described Bin Laden’s death as a victory.
Many questions still hang in the air. We may find answers to some of these questions in the near future. Other questions may remain a mystery for far longer. For Islamabad, the whole business is something of an embarrassment. Despite years of fervent denial, Bin Laden has been found on Pakistani soil. And now that the brazen US action in Abbotabad has happened, there may be other attempts to go after key militant figures in different urban centres. The thought is not a comforting one, considered in light of its implications for national sovereignty. Security has been stepped up at US consular buildings and in all cities. There have been reports of sporadic protests – but it is not known if these will expand. A lot may depend on how the operation and Pakistan’s role in it are perceived. The Western jubilation we are seeing on our television screens should not distract us from the fact that militancy will continue. It has not died with Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda has, over the years, splintered, and given rise to many other groups. These will continue with their actions; revenge may be attempted – and the dangers we face are, tragically, far from over, even if the killing of Bin Laden delivers a demoralising blow to militants everywhere.