Presidents Obama and Bush and their respective security and intelligence teams deserve a hearty round of applause for the death of Osama bin Laden last night. After nearly a decade of intelligence gathering and a successful special ops operation, the terrorist mastermind has finally been brought to justice. President Obama particularly deserves credit for executing an extra-judicial killing (the mission was to kill not capture) and handling the event with poise and respectability.
As news reports indicate, bin Laden was killed in a mid-afternoon raid of a compound inside Abbottabad, Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s head was holed up. After a 40 minute battle, Navy SEAL forces were successful in shooting bin Laden in a firefight. Intelligence officials, including CIA director Leon Panetta, were able to watch the operation on a live feed from Virginia. While bin Laden’s death is undoubtedly cause for celebration it raises a couple of “what next” questions.
First, the location of bin Laden’s compound raises some significant questions about Pakistan’s complacency. The compound, described as a near fortress-like facility with four to six meter thick walls topped with barbed wire is located in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a suburb of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Abbottabad is said to be an important seat of the Pakistani government. The building was only a short distance from the Pakistan Military Academy, what BBC has called “the country's equivalent of West Point.”
Whether Pakistan knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts has yet to be determined, but obvious questions are buzzing around the media. It seems dubious that the world’s most wanted terrorist could be holed up in a fortress-like compound a mere 40 miles outside of the capital and across the street from a military college without someone in Pakistan’s government or in the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence services notoriously known for their ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban) knowing.
Further news will undoubtedly come forward in the next few days. If it is true that Pakistan had knowledge of bin Laden’s location and failed to assist the United States, it will be impossible for the Obama administration to avoid severe political reprisals against the country. No country or group can be excused for aiding and abetting the world’s most wanted terrorist. While the US will still need to work with Pakistan in the fight against radical Islam, punitive measures would be essential.
Second, while bin Laden’s death is certainly a major win for the United States and the war on terrorism, the West should be careful to avoid reading too deep into its operational significance. There are still many terrorists who wish to see harm brought to America. Bin Laden was, in many ways, a figurehead and his incapacitation does not negate the broader threat. Today we can celebrate, but we must not let down our guard. Instead we must continue to fight those who wish to destroy our way of life. This is especially true in the near future, as security forces have been put on high alert for possible reprisal attacks. For many in the Islamic world, bin Laden was a hero and his death a major loss. The war on terrorism will not be won solely by killing major leaders, but by defeating the very ideology that underpins a hatred of the West.