Thursday, 3 May 2012

Bin Laden and the al Qaeda legacy

A car bomb exploded in the Afghan capital on the morning of May 2, a police official said, hours after US President Barack Obama left Kabul, Reuters reported. Police chief Ayub Salangi said the car bomb exploded on Jalalabad Road, and that a compound known as "Green Village" was the target. Another police official said the explosion was followed by an exchange of gunfire. A spokesman from NATO headquarters in Afghanistan said it was aware of several explosions.

Mr Obama arrived in Afghanistan on May 1 for an unannounced visit with President Hamid Karzai, Afghan officials said, New York Post reported, citing TOLOnews. He visited Kabul on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011.

While militant and terrorist activities by the Taliban are on-going in Afghanistan, Mr bin Laden’s core al Qaeda group has not conducted a significant attack for years. The al Qaeda ideology has spread across the globe appearing as franchises in Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, and Indonesia. But the original terrorist group based out of Afghanistan and started by bin Laden - known as al Qaeda Prime (AQP) - was forcibly broken and dispersed following US military operations in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Osama bin Laden was moved to High Value Target number 1 (HVT1) after the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the eastern United States on September 11, 2001. His operatives died in the attack but he and many of his colleagues still remained, sheltered by the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. The US military were tasked to enter Afghanistan to both remove the Taliban from power and break the strength of al Qaeda to ensure against further attacks.

During early operations, Osama bin Laden was targeted in the caves of Tora Bora where AQP was bombed severely, killing many of his operatives. Mr Bin Laden himself was injured in this fight, and during a videotape that aired December 27, 2001 he did not move his entire left side as the thirty-four minute tape filmed. Abdel Bari Atwan, a past interviewer of Mr bin Laden, explains how an al Qaeda member he met in the Gulf region told of a medical operation on the al Qaeda leader's left shoulder following the bombardment of Tora Bora.

Mr Bin Laden was able to escape the cave complex of Tora Bora and most likely went into Pakistan with a few of his al Qaeda followers shortly before Christmas 2001. It is believed he remained in Pakistan until May 2011, living in Abbottabad as his colleagues dispersed.

It is unknown whether the Pakistan intelligence community knew of his whereabouts during this time, or whether his egress from those caves in 2001 was assisted by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency.

What is known is that the eventual decision made between the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was not to inform the Pakistan intelligence agency prior to the raid to kill Osama bin Laden last May. This suggests a high level of distrust between the two intelligence communities which has come to define their relations.

US intelligence learned of Mr bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and began conducting surveillance somewhere between early 2009 and mid-2010. Using a mix of human, satellite and signals intelligence they were able to give President Barack Obama about a 50/50 assessment that the al Qaeda leader was in the compound they were watching.

The initial analysts piecing together the intelligence - reportedly a group of hard-working females - initially gave a 60-80% likelihood that Mr bin Laden was the person they were watching pace about the inside of the compound’s 3 meter-high perimeter fence each day. A ‘red team’ (an independent group of analysts who did not participate in the original search) assessed the intelligence conclusions and came back with a 40-60% chance it was him.

This was enough for Mr Obama to authorise the planned mission to enter Pakistan with a Special Forces team. Osama bin Laden was killed May 1, 2011 in a 20 minute operation conducted by JSOC and officers from the CIA.

Mr bin Laden’s death, close to ten years after the attacks in the US which he claimed responsibility for, was heavy with symbolism, but light of strategic importance. AQP had been a non-threat for almost a decade and it is arguable whether al Qaeda as an organisation even existed outside of Mr bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The ideology that eventually led to the destruction of the buildings on the US eastern seaboard has spread around the globe. So much so that the death or continued living of Mr bin Laden carried almost no significance on these franchise group’s ability to operate independently. Intelligence gathered from his compound indicates he never stopped plotting attacks against western interests, but many of the plans were in concept only and none appeared to be in stages of active operation.

The death of Mr bin Laden was important for America because it was seen as a natural closure on a conflict against a mostly unseen enemy that lasted more than a decade. His vision of bringing sweeping Islamic change to the governments of Middle-Eastern countries was never realised in his lifetime.

The so-called ‘Arab-Spring’ that began at the beginning of 2011 has yet to meaningfully convulse the region. And by attacking the “far enemy” (the US and other western countries), he hoped to drive the “near enemy” (the Arab regimes) into collapse. His fatwa against the US was not in response to “morals” or “freedoms” as some have suggested. Instead Mr bin Laden took offence at the foreign policies of the US in the Middle East, and its support for Israel.

Today, the world, and especially the United States, slowly turns away from the distraction of global terrorism and is focusing back on its individual geopolitical imperatives. The US intervention in Iraq was completed at the end of 2011 and the final withdrawal of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops from Afghanistan starts this year, completing late 2014. While the Taliban is such an amorphous group that it is unlikely US and ISAF forces will complete a proper military victory over them, the international forces will ensure that the country is unable to support terror groups again.

Al Qaeda is still under attack from US forces around the world, and the many resilient franchises continue to attempt operations against US interests. The operational capabilities and experience levels of al Qaeda members has dropped considerably over the years as a result of these on-going western strikes.

Many of the group’s best bomb-makers have been either killed or captured, leaving behind willing but inexperienced members unable to carry out meaningful attacks. The operations attempted by members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for example, have either mostly failed or been largely ineffective strategically.

The group does have significant influence in Yemen, but US assistance to the Yemeni transitional government and UAV strikes conducted from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and US aircraft carriers have killed many high level AQAP members, and will continue to do so.

Perhaps Osama bin Laden’s greatest accomplishment was to draw limited US resources away from its strategic imperatives and force it to fight a battle it was not prepared for, driving it to spend more and more treasure to adapt to the threat of militancy.

While bin Laden was not fully cognisant of the ultimate outcome of the US-led global war on terror, his particular brand of Islamism diverted the world’s only superpower into extended wars in the Middle East where it is unclear what long-term affect they will have on the region.

In the last ten years, Mr bin Laden’s ideology motivated thousands of poor, uneducated (and educated), deeply religious young men - of which the Middle East overflows with appropriate resources-  into fighting “holy war” against US forces in countries from Morocco to Indonesia to Fort Hood, Texas.

Terrorism has not disappeared with one man’s death on a warm May night in a quiet highland town in northern Pakistan. The tactic of terrorism coupled with the effective invigoration of fanatical Islamic religion will keep the undercurrent of Mr bin Laden’s modus operandi rolling well into the future.

Responsible countries should learn to accept that they cannot eliminate this threat, and they must plan to live with the reality of worldwide terrorism. His death marks the historic end of Western nations committing their entire military complex to fight a single tactic of war, such as what US found itself doing after that clear morning sky in autumn 2001.

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