A monster is dead but risks remain

Allister Heath
IT was the news we had all thought would never happen. At last, Osama bin Laden, the murderer of thousands, the man who ordered 9/11 and the defining symbol of 21st century global terrorism, is dead. It had started to look as if the blood-thirsty monomaniac would always elude the West’s intelligence services. In the end, however, he was defeated; his execution by the US, while largely symbolic, is nevertheless a great victory for freedom and a bitter blow for fanaticism and terrorism.

Just about everything about yesterday’s development is astonishing. Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was executed by the US, is a garrison town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, roughly two hours’ drive from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. It is also home to three regiments of the Pakistani army, many retired generals and an extremely important base. The fact that Bin Laden was hiding there undetected – surrounded by intelligence personnel and military staff - in the largest mansion in the area beggars belief. As we learnt yesterday, the compound in which Bin Laden lived had neither a phone line nor an internet connection, something that ought to have fuelled suspicions as it is a precaution used by those nervous of electronic eavesdropping. Yet it was in this highly visible, luxurious HQ, a ridiculously short distance from the army’s Kakul officer training school, that the world’s most wanted man and many of his family were hiding from America’s gaze.

There is just no way that Western relations with Pakistan’s political, military and intelligence elites can possibly remain the same. It is, of course, vital that trade be increased with Pakistan: commerce is the only tool to fuel prosperity and help ordinary, long-suffering Pakistanis climb out of poverty. It is a scandal and a travesty that the EU continues to impose tariffs on Pakistani goods. But David Cameron’s decision to use a visit there barely a few weeks ago to apologise for the UK’s imperial past is now bound to be seen as a colossal misjudgment. And in terms of pure geopolitics, India is bound to emerge as the big winner from this extremely grave blow to Pakistan’s reputation.

Barack Obama was right to send in helicopters and special forces, rather than bomb Bin Laden’s compound to oblivion. The US has made one important mistake in its handling of the announcement, however. The fact that it has yet to produce images of Bin Laden’s body is fuelling suspicions among conspiracy theorists; if they have any sense, the Americans will soon produce much more documentary evidence, including a full DNA analysis. This won’t shut up the loony tunes – but it will go some way towards placating more moderate sceptics. America, Britain and the EU also need to heed the reaction to Bin Laden’s death: there has been overwhelming support from governments and people from around the world, with one key exception: Hamas, which decried his death, in a horrifying, chilling and hopefully disastrously self-defeating statement. How can an organization which openly backed the al-Qaeda leader in this way ever be trusted as part of the Middle East peace process? It cannot – and any negotiator or country that makes the error of extending it an olive branch will immediately discredit itself and the whole process.

The pictures of spontaneous rejoicing in US universities, public places and even in the New York metro were just one of the many striking facets of yesterday’s story. The crowds were jubilant, young and from every background. Many of those rejoicing were students who would have been no more than 10 or even younger at the time of 9/11. Most would probably be supporters of Barack Obama’s Democratic party, especially the youth celebrating in California and New York – yet they were chanting “USA, USA”, singing the national anthem and evidently back a very robust approach to terrorists. It was further proof that Europeans, including most British commentators, simply don’t understand the modern US psyche or American politics.

A monster is dead, his body buried at sea. The world’s largest manhunt, started by President George W Bush in 2001, is finally over. It is right to rejoice: mass-murderers and terrorists do not deserve our compassion or pity. But while one vital task has been accomplished, the struggle against terrorism and those who want to destroy the Western way of life is far from over. The threats remain huge; thousands of young people remain tempted by an extremist, distorted and perverted variant of Islam, one of the world’s great religions. Al-Qaeda is bound to want to strike back after the death of its leader. Many Londoners have become complacent after almost six terror-free years – even though there have been plenty of failed attempts during that time, seen off by a combination of luck and great policing and intelligence work. Today we should celebrate the death of a blood-thirsty maniac – and redouble our vigilance.

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath