Osama’s compound rubble as metaphor for several strained relationships

Amanda Hodge, in The Australian, 2 May 2012 where it was presented under a different title

A FUNNY thing happened at the site where Osama bin Laden’s house once stood the other day. Three Chinese businessmen, arrested for entering the Abbottabad neighbourhood where the al-Qa’ida chief lived a life of secret mediocrity, tried to cut a deal with police to sell “genuine bin Laden rubble” over the internet.

The story is as notable for its slapstick value as it is for the fact that residents of Bilal Town can finally – after a year of fear and intrusion – see something to laugh about.

For Daniel Alvi, it’s another sign, since February’s demolition of the three-storey compound where bin Laden saw out his final days, that things are returning to normal. “It was really funny, people were laughing about it,” he told The Australian this week. “People try to come all the time. Whenever foreigners come here, the police immediately arrest them.”

It is a year since Daniel, now a first-year medical student, watched in the pre-dawn dark as two silenced helicopters hovered over Bilal Town and US commandos stormed the mysterious house down the road, ending a 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

In the aftermath, it was Daniel who first told The Australian of local kids’ suspicions about the bin Laden compound, known as the graveyard of sports balls thanks to the strict “no retrieve” policy imposed by the secretive neighbours.

He has heard the site is to be turned into a park for kids; a fitting legacy given the losses they bore. That is not the only compensation for residents who awoke on May 2 last year to news they had played unwitting hosts for more than five years to the world’s most wanted terrorist. A deep water bore under the property has provided free water to locals since a pipe was ruptured during demolition. For now, the site remains littered with rubble, although that is diminishing as the army clears the plot and residents souvenir their own bits of genuine bin Laden rubble for posterity.

The picturesque garrison town of Abbottabad remains all but closed to foreigners. Businessmen, journalists, tourists – even an ambassador – have been detained in the past year for trying to visit the site of the Pakistani military’s humiliation.

Pakistan is a less friendly place these days. For journalists, bin Laden’s legacy has been one of crippling new visa restrictions underwritten by an assumption of malevolent intent. But Pakistan’s relationship with the US has been the single biggest casualty of the audacious raid, which drew a line under the 9/11 attacks for which bin Laden will be remembered, but exposed the deep distrust between so-called allies.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment has not recovered from the embarrassment of failing to detect US Blackhawks crossing unsanctioned into its air space. Its apparent failure to detect bin Laden living a kilometre from its most prestigious military academy is widely seen as either institutional incompetence or terrorist collusion.

A senior Pakistan security official told The Australian the relationship was now at its “lowest ebb” thanks to the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor shot dead two motor-cyclists in Lahore, the bin Laden raid and November’s inadvertent US airstrike on a Pakistan army checkpoint.

Islamabad has since closed NATO’s overland supply route and evicted the US military from the Shamsi airbase – restricting its successful drone campaign targeting al-Qa’ida and Taliban commanders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “The onus is on the Americans to prove they are sincere and they can do so by trusting us, treating us with respect and honouring our sovereignty,” the security official said.

The White House says the two nations are working together to track down bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian cleric believed to be still hiding near the Afghan border. But relations – and intelligence sharing – are far from normalised as Pakistan awaits an apology over the cross-border strike, and the two nations try to recalibrate the alliance with more clearly defined parameters.

In the US, where the raid marks the high point of Barack Obama’s presidency, the bin Laden bounce was short-lived and likely to be of limited assistance in his re-election bid. Many analysts argue that al-Qa’ida was a spent force by the time bin Laden was killed, pointing to its failure to pull off major Western terror attacks since the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

Yet lone wolf terrorists still come to Pakistan for training and al-Qa’ida’s network of affiliates from Yemen to Nigeria, Somalia to Syria, continues to expand and rain occasional terror on local populations. Far from the centrally run, corporate-styled enterprise it was under bin Laden – with its holiday policies and furniture allowances – the al-Qa’ida of today is a more diffuse organisation and therefore more difficult to track.

In his recent analysis of the post-bin Laden landscape, Seth Jones from the US conservative think tank Rand Corporation, describes al-Qa’ida’s expansion through South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as a “mergers and acquisitions” strategy.

Pakistan still hosts at least 16 active terror groups and, despite al-Qa’ida’s violent legacy, “public support remains high in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt, though it has steadily declined in others”.

“If this is what the brink of defeat looks like, I’d hate to see success,” he said.

Was it worth it? “In terms of striking a blow against terrorism in general, (the bin Laden raid) was absolutely critical because it showed the US is true to its word and no matter how well protected you are and no matter how well secreted you are, we’re going to find you and get you,” said Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman, a counter-terrorism expert and former adviser to the US Office of National Security Affairs.

“To me, that’s the start and end point of any war on terror. If you’re not prepared to do that, you really are inviting more acts of violence.”

From an intelligence perspective, the raid struck pay-dirt in Abbottabad. Names, numbers, emails, locations, as well as discussions over planned operations were recovered in thousands of electronic files and documents removed from the compound.

It is accepted wisdom that al-Qa’ida’s core leadership has been decimated by the drone strikes, and now spends much of its energy avoiding detection rather than plotting new attacks.

But there are two schools of thought on whether al-Qa’ida is a spent force or a significant terror threat.

Peter Bergen, one of the only Western journalists to have interviewed bin Laden and author of Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for bin Laden, says the group has been in decline since the 9/11 attacks which he describes as al-Qa’ida’s Pearl Harbour – “a tactical victory but strategic failure”.

“What was most interesting was just how little impact bin Laden’s death had,” he said, pointing to the lack of mass demonstrations or promised major terror strikes.

The May 2 raid and the Arab Spring – which saw the removal of Middle Eastern despots in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia – were “obituary moments” for an al-Qa’ida whose influence had long since abated, he says.

“Bin Laden’s death was a way of trying to bring that whole era to an end and I think it succeeded.”

Like Bergen, Jason Burke, a Guardian journalist and author of the acclaimed 9/11 Wars, read the Arab Spring as proof that bin Laden’s global jihad strategy had lost currency in the Islamic world.

Bin Laden’s success lay in unifying “pre-existing strands of radical activism and increasing their violent focus on the US and the West”, said Burke. But he failed to stitch a lasting unity among localised Jihadist causes.

“When the (Arab) uprisings did come they came in the name of democracy,” he said. “Even before he died bin Laden was beginning to look pretty dated. Arab Spring was all about kids and young people, not 54-year-old beardy blokes wagging fingers on video.”

Bergen and Burke argue the global jihad movement is receding and al-Qa’ida under Zawahiri no longer has the capacity to launch the kind of attacks that made bin Laden, for a time, the Pied Piper of Islamic militancy.

Despite fears his slaying would stir an impassioned battle cry among disparate jihad forces, it merely exposed a prematurely aged man living out his days in prosaic suburbia with three wives and a brood of kids.

“There was nothing Wagnerian about it,” Bergen drily notes.

Not everyone believes al-Qa’ida is on its last legs, however. Professor Hoffman points to its expansion in Yemen, its February alliance with Somalia’s al-Shabab and the growth of the Nigerian-based Boko Haram, which last Sunday killed 16 at a Christian service and has promised more attacks in coming weeks.

“There is considerable evidence we’re talking about a different organisation than before, where the periphery is now stronger than the centre,” he said. “While the entire globe has been downsizing in terms of budgets and personnel, al-Qa’ida has grown by more than 50 per cent”.

Professor Hoffman said fatigue with the war on terror, and the fact al-Qa’ida has managed no significant Western terror strike since 2005, has led many to assume it is a spent force. “Bin laden is dead and gone and I think that exactly captures the mood of the electorate who want the war on terrorism to be over. But there’s no evidence that al-Qa’ida does not believe a significant terrorist strike could reverse its fortunes.”

He said the organisation is still capable of a July 7 or Madrid underground-style attack. That of course remains to be seen.

A year after he died in a hail of bullets, there is at least some consensus over Osama bin Laden’s legacy. The man who sparked a decade of costly conflict by sending two planes into New York’s World Trade Centre is ultimately responsible for the deaths of many, many innocent people and deep divisions between the Islamic and Western worlds.

Professor Hoffman said: “He changed the course of history and there are very few human beings alive in the twenty first century of whom you can say that.”

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