At 8:58 PM London time, May 1, 2011, a Lahore software developer named Sohaib Athar, who had withdrawn to a secluded mountain resort town called Abbottabad to escape crowded city life, wrote the following message on Twitter: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” Over the next few minutes, he heard “a huge window shaking bang” and chatted with friends who confirmed that the helicopter had disappeared but that another was around. He then heard more bangs and wrote, “Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicpoters, and since they’re saying it was not “ours”, so must be a complicated situation.”
A little over 800 feet away, Osama bin Laden was shot in the head during a gunfight with American special forces.
The news was announced by US President Barack Obama at about 4 AM this morning, here; by the time I was awake, American newspapers had splashed the story across their front pages (English papers were already printed), and the Internet was flooded with jokes mocking the dead terrorist (“should have gone with the hollowed out volcano” – David Waldman). I’ve had three waves of reaction.
The first was a simple, “wow, this is big.” We’ve spent nine years and seven months in war with al-Qaeda, and well over fifteen years trying to capture or kill its mastermind, and now, after that decade, its leader is finally dead. This feels like the end of an era.
But the second reaction is: no, it’s not. This is one man. He has been living, probably since 2005, in a massive mansion with 16-foot-high walls but with, importantly, no telephone line or other connection to the outside world. If he has had any role in al-Qaeda over recent years, it has been through his favored courier, who owned the house and taped his videos. In other words, practically speaking, our main enemy right now is the several dozen copycats who have set up their own terror cells. This doesn’t really change all that much.
On the other hand, my third reaction goes, Osama bin Laden’s death is big, but it is big for our past and not our future. The families of those killed on September 11, and, lest we forget, on the U.S.S. Cole, at several African embassies, in the temples at Luxor, and in Afghanistan since 2001 will perhaps feel some degree of closure. The soldiers and intelligence officers who have given years of their lives to the cause of bringing about some measure of punishment for bin Laden’s unspeakable crimes have finally seen their efforts vindicated.
But, beyond the symbolic value and the closing of a too-long chapter of the book, not much is going to change because of this. We now know Pakistan is not to be trusted (bin Laden lived down the street from their West Point). We now know that al-Qaeda is effectively leaderless. We know, from the reaction in the Middle East, that outside from a few fringe lunatics the terrorists really do not have any public support.
But that’s it. Killing Osama bin Laden won’t improve conditions in Afghanistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or Iran, or Iraq; killing Osama bin Laden won’t change the to-do list in the Middle East; killing Osama bin Laden won’t have a big impact on politics in America, either. My reaction, in other words, is that this feels like a big deal, because it writes the ending of a dark story, but this really does not change anything.
A fellow blogger named Issandr El Amrani, writing from Cairo for The Arabist, has said basically the same thing, but in fewer words: “symbolically this is important for the US, and for the families of the victims of 9/11.” But, “by the time he died it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region.”
Indeed. The story of Osama bin Laden is that of a man whose determination to kill civilians and violence toward fellow Muslims (and all human life) made him hated even in his own region, marginalized into a corner with fellow monsters. Now that he is dead, we can feel relief and a small primal twinge of satisfaction. And then we must get back to work.