Seymour Hersh's investigative piece on Osama bin Laden’s killing that appeared in London Review of Books (LRB) as well as the release by U.S. State Department of documents seized from the Abbottabad compound have brought the raid of May 20, 2011 back to public memory. As U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term comes to a close, it’s difficult not to feel that by reconstructing memories of that particular day, which Obama presented as the most significant foreign policy achievement of his first term, we are trying to flog a dead horse.
Much as the U.S. did that night by projecting Osama's killing as an act of victory. By killing a terrorist who had long lost his relevance even in the eyes of his most serious backers, the only point U.S. President Barack Obama was trying to make was that killing an individual could compensate for not being able to address the circumstances that made his terror network flourish.
Osama, a non-entity
From Hersh’s report and the corroborations it has received from journalists like Carlotta Gall as well as the documents U.S. State Department released a few days ago a few important points emerge.
The first point, obvious yet striking, is made by the retired U.S. intelligence official who acted as Hersh’s primary source for the story. “The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that.”
The de-classified “treasure trove” that appeared earlier this week which the U.S. had seized on the day of the Abbottabad raid only confirm this. Beyond some trivia on what Osama was reading in his final years and some of his ill-informed reflections on events that were happening, they don’t have anything to offer. Contrary to what is claimed by White House, they don’t reveal much on future attacks planned. They do show that Osama was determined to strike the West till the very end but his understanding of uprisings and revolutions elsewhere -- for instance the sectarian war in Iraq and the Arab spring -- was too shallow to allow him to formulate an effective jihadi plan.
Unlike what the White House claimed as justification for killing him, Osama certainly was in no position to make operational plans for his cadre. Neither was he capable of directing al-Qaeda’s operations. Killing an old, infirm terrorist without gleaning any new insight on his terror network did not constitute any significant success for U.S. War on Terror. If anything, it constituted good election campaign material for Obama to get re-elected for another term.
Here, Obama was not lacking in precedent. His predecessor George W. Bush had sold a pack of lies to the Americans on non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and Saddam’s connections with al-Qaeda in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was an important factor in winning him a re-election in 2004. By the time Bush junior relinquished presidency, his version of events had been discredited enough to be considered mendacious.
The same appears to be true in the case of Obama. Though the raid gave him enough ammunition to claim success in the War on Terror, it was clear from the happenings elsewhere that neither U.S. nor the West in general was capable of driving Taliban or al-Qaeda out of their countries of origin militarily.
U.S. War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq was a spectacular failure. Withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2010 only resulted in an increase in suicide bombings and the rise of militant factions, ultimately leading to Islamic State occupying northern Iraq. There were no signs of Taliban insurgency abating in Afghanistan despite an upsurge in the troop strength. In such a situation of battleground losses, how could the killing of Osama, who had become a non-entity by then, be counted as a success?
Here, it is interesting to highlight NATO’s then ongoing intervention in Libya, one it had undertaken in March 2011 after providing itself mandate and legitimacy under the fallacious “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. The Libyan mission to protect civilians had turned into a mission creep when, following the imposition a no-fly zone, NATO started pushing for regime change. Just a week before the Abbottabad raid, NATO had carried out air strikes on Tripoli’s Bab al-azizia compound, the lavishly built home of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, calling it a “legitimate target”. NATO-backed rebels would gain control of the compound later in the year. Following the Osama raid, at least for a few days, the attention of the media worldwide got diverted from the events in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Late in October, five months after Osama’s death, Qaddafi was brutally murdered and his body used as a trophy by the Libyan rebels. Four years since the intervention, Libya finds itself divided between a dysfunctional state, warring militias and jihadists.
This is a situation Osama himself seem to have wanted when, in one of his last letters in early 2011 seized from his compound, he advocated for the removal of all the remnants of ancien regime in Tunisia and Egypt through bloodshed. He gave Iranian and French revolutions as successful examples where bloodshed was preferred to dialogue.
Killing, a premeditated murder
Another important input that emerges from Seymour Hersh’s narrative is that none of the interested parties — the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan — had an inclination to keep Osama alive after the Abbottabad raid. As the retired U.S. intelligence official says, “It was clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder.”
As Hersh says, the only instruction the SEALs had been given was to murder him. It was homicide, despite the U.S. maintaining that their first objective was to capture him alive.
Pakistan, which Hersh says had given him shelter to use his stay as a leverage against Taliban activities inside, wanted to keep the flow of funds coming from the U.S. The then ISI director-general, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha is supposed to have told the intelligence official they wanted Taliban and al-Qaeda to keep away from the interests of the ISI.
Capturing Osama alive could have served two purposes: one, it could have given further leads into the terror network of which he was once an indispensable part. It may be a touch too optimistic to assume that a battle-hardened terrorist like him would have parted with any useful information. Also, considering that he had been largely cut off from the jihad network during his secluded stay in Abbottabad, it is unlikely that he would have had information on future operations planned by other jihadist organisations. However, interrogating him could have yielded insights into the mind, into the psychology of a criminal.
Further, keeping him alive and imprisoned for life would have been a more humane form of justice. There are two questions to be considered here: do victims of terror necessarily get a sense of closure if an individual terrorist is eliminated, by overt or covert means?
The answer in many cases is a clear negative. We only need to reflect on the reactions of survivors of the Boston Marathon attacks after Dzokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death.
The second question is, was it justified on the part of the biggest global superpower to violate the sovereignty of another country, an ally, to carry out a silent raid? If yes, it is also valid to use predator drones to get rid of undesirables like the U.S. did in the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki; Hakimullah Mehsud; and Abdullah Haqqani?
Al-Qaeda the terror group
Finally, coming back to the bin Laden raid, is it true that the amorphous entity called “Al-Qaeda” was created, financed and kept alive by him and his associates? Were the terrorist activities conducted in Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula part of al-Qaeda’s vision to impose a caliphate? Or were they instances of jihadist regional rebellion given the name of al-Qaeda just to give legitimacy to CIA’s half-truths that the terrorist network had expanded and grown more destructive?
Irish writer Richard Seymour, writing for London Review of Books in 2012, spoke about the myth created around al-Qaeda through his piece “The uses of al-Qaeda”. He said Osama’s links to the terror network were referred to by the State Department for this first time in a 1998 report. The term “al-Qaeda” was used not for a group but for “an operational hub, predominantly for like-minded Sunni extremists.” Hence, as Seymour says, it was mostly a broad umbrella under which cadre could be mobilised by jihadist leaders in regions like the Maghreb and Yemen to fulfill their own political objectives.
The use of al-Qaeda’s name gave the narrative a “hyperstitious quality”, as Seymour says. Through repeated narration of the same fable, it produced real effects. This happened in Iraq when despite al-Qaeda having had no presence prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, repeated use of the term ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ led both the real al-Qaeda and the international community to accept the label.
Killing of an individual terrorist, without gaining control over the circumstances that gave him a level of acceptability, is an act of mere bravado. Osama the man was a non-entity. Osama the idea was being kept alive through polemic, both jihadist and Western. By repeatedly demonising him and linking all major terrorist attacks to him and his cohort, the West merely deflected attention from his failure in state building in Afghanistan and the brewing revolt in Iraq because of its unprovoked aggression.
The same narrative later played out in Libya, where the intervening nations were more intent on finishing off Qaddafi than stabilising the country. The same story is gaining traction in the case of Syria, where the West’s recalcitrance on dealing with Assad has led to Islamic State gaining greater foothold, to a point now where it controls almost half its territory. The farce that played out in Libya is being repeated now in Syria and Yemen. We wonder if Osama’s ghost has been wilfully kept alive.