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“Perhaps the US Navy seals did capture Osama alive...”
Cairo-based max rodenbeck, middle east bureau chief at the economist, discusses Bin Laden’s death, the involvement of Pakistan and the effects of Osama’s death on other terror outfits.
Issue Date - 19/01/2012
B&E: Recently, America celebrated the end of Osama bin Laden, as the end of the mastermind behind the biggest terror threats worldwide. Is it actually such a victory?
Max Rodenbeck (MR): Understanding that he was one of the biggest criminals in world history and the biggest threat to peace, the celebration was called for. But to hope that this would bring an end to all kinds of terrorist attacks like those masterminded by the al-Qaeda under bin Laden’s leadership, I think it is premature to think that such a thing will happen. Osama’s death is a big blow to al-Qaeda, The outfit has grown considerably weaker in the past ten years, and it is not clear as to who will be the successor to Osama.

B&E: While reacting to the news of Osama’s death, the British PM had said that there was a need for the West to be cautious of a backlash. Also, Taliban has vowed to launch an attack on US and Pakistan to avenge Osama’s death. How real are these threats?
MR: More than considering them real or not, it is better to understand these as short-term threats. The most striking response to Laden’s death from the Muslim world has been the silence. There was not a great deal of comment at all. Besides the people who are on the fringe of Islamic radicalism – the Jihadist fringe, which is a very small fringe element in the Muslim world today – the rest are not upset about Osama’s death. But in terms of an immediate backlash, it is pretty likely that some of those groups associated with al-Qaeda will feel the need to either express their anger or reassert the fact that they still exist by launching an attack.

B&E: Reports have claimed that Osama bin Laden, in recent times, was not as active as he was, say about 10-15 years ago. What are your views? MR: It is true that Osama’s leadership has not been that important in recent years. In fact, the central leadership of al-Qaeda has not been that critical. The work of al-Qaeda around the world over the last couple of years has been carried out by groups that are only remotely linked to al-Qaeda. Laden’s leadership has been less important of late. I think this has also largely been because he has been unable to communicate. His leadership position had weakened even before his death.

B&E: The growth of al-Qaeda also led to the formation and strengthening of several other smaller outfits across the globe. How big a deterrent is Osama’s death for these outfits?

MR: I don’t think we have anyone trying or planning to play the part of al-Qaeda in the same sort of manner. In an organisational sense, there are some people who follow the policy of global jihad, but this is a small minority which mostly exists on the Internet – in terms of being real and operative on-ground, there are really very few. Maximum, we are talking about a few hundred around the world. They are all very like-minded outfits that exist in many different countries. We are talking about small cells, of hardly two dozen people each. And a lot of them have the basic primitive training and have very limited goals and what they can achieve. So, in such a scenario, we will see terrorism on a very small scale, than on a global scale. al-Qaeda’s vision, over the last 10 years, has become increasingly difficult to sustain, because it broke into a franchise, with different branches that operate independently. There is very little central leadership. And it’s hard to see any organisation that will try to emulate a centrally-led terror outfit. I am not sure whether Osama’s death will have any impact on terror groups or on whether his death will make the smaller, lesser known groups stronger. Interestingly, even if you look at geographies, there are considerable differences between the countries. Pakistan is rather unstable and has its own domestically generated and caused sources of violent Islamic radicalism. And these are not often connected to the broader or global movement such as the al-Qaeda. So there could be different forms of local terror groups in different countries.

B&E: You mentioned Pakistan. Osama being found in that country, has also laid rest to claims by Pakistan that no terrorist outfits breed on its backyards. Did the Pakistani government really not know about Osama’s presence in its territory?
MR: This Pakistani leadership, in terms of how the army and intelligence have gone, is pretty divided. There have been those games going on – there is no question about that. The Pakistani government has been under tremendous pressure for years because of the balancing act it has had to play to solve its domestic problems, and to fulfil the demands of its security establishments and the demands of its allies. But the highly acrobatic attempts by the Pakistani government to avoid all blame proves that parts of the Pakistani establishment may have co-operated with US in the hunt for Bin Laden, perhaps without informing other parts of the Pakistani establishments. The difficulty in answering questions regarding its involvement and the fact that even US had problems explaining Pakistan’s role in the exercise does prove that some in the Pakistani government knew about it.

B&E: How did the Middle East react to the news of Osama’s death?
MR: In the Middle East, the reaction was more like a quiet expression that this chapter was over. A broad majority in the Middle East didn’t feel very strongly about bin Laden. And the majority is divided half and half between two groups – those who found him an embarrassment and bad for Muslims and Islam because he brought shame to the community, and those who slightly admired him because he was defiant and a romantic figure.


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