Just four months before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the reported death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan ought to signal an end to the “War on Terror” declared by the Bush administration in the wake of the attacks — the “war” that led to “extraordinary rendition,” the establishment of secret American torture prisons around the world, and the imprisonment without charge or trial, and, initially, without any rights whatsoever, of 779 prisoners at Guantánamo, 172 of whom remain.
The reported death of al-Qaeda’s leader also ought to signal an end to the “war” that led to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and of nearly 6,000 US soldiers, but it is unlikely — extremely unlikely, I would suggest — that anything significant will happen, apart from increased security alerts in the West, and — though let us hope not — some sort of terrorist reprisal.
A preservation of the status quo or even an attempt to ramp up the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” — along the lines of Hillary Clinton’s announcement that “the fight continues and we will never waiver” — would be, to put it mildly, a great, great disappointment, as the death of bin Laden ought to bring about, at the very least, an end to America’s occupation of Afghanistan and its expansion by drone attack into Pakistani territory.
Numerous questions remain unanswered concerning the apparent death of Osama bin Laden in a Special Forces raid on a compound in Abbottabad, in north eastern Pakistan — not least, what, if anything, the Pakistani authorities knew about it, why the assassination took place now, why the body was “buried at sea” so swiftly, and if the assassination was connected to the release by WikiLeaks, a week ago, of classified military documents relating to the prisoners at Guantánamo.
I ask this latter question especially because one of the stories to emerge in the wake of bin Laden’s reported death is that the alleged disclosure of the name of one of his key couriers — which reportedly led directly to his death — took place during the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, two “high-value detainees” who were held in secret CIA prisons and subjected to torture before their transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006.
The importance of these revelations — and the exultation already being demonstrated by torture apologists in the US — deserves to be challenged, as it must not be used as a justification either for the use of torture or for the continued existence of the abomination that is Guantánamo, but for now I’d like to end this brief analysis of the significance of the news of Osama bin Laden’s death with, if you will, a more upbeat reflection on how the “War on Terror” that began with the 9/11 attacks, and was sustained through America’s brutal and largely catastrophic and counter-productive response to those attacks, ought to have come to an end with the uprisings in the countries of the Middle East, led by the people of Tunisia and Egypt. As I wrote in February, in an article entitled, The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror”:
In Tunisia and Egypt, where the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were deposed, and in other countries where the people are rising up against their long-established dictators … the movements that were triggered by the single self-immolation of a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 19 last year, are driven not by Islamist groups, but by the people, who are demonstrating that dictatorships can be toppled by sheer numbers.
Throughout the region, young people, who have known nothing but dictatorship, are rising up, forming alliances with trade unionists and disgruntled professionals, while the Islamists have either been content to stay in the background (as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) or, like Ennahdha in Tunisia, were largely imprisoned or in exile when the revolution that toppled Ben Ali took place.
If the Islamists had been centre-stage, I have no doubt that the West’s response to the popular revolutionary movements spreading throughout the Middle East would have been very different, as Western leaders would have been able to insert them into their tired “War on Terror” narrative. As it is, however, Western leaders have generally had to mouth platitudes about democracy and the will of the people, while refusing to become too engaged, as they are presumably aware that, for decades, their actions have actually demonstrated that they have no interest whatsoever in the welfare of the people of the Middle East, and that they have, instead, supported the very dictators who have either fallen or are now clinging onto power.
Since then, the countries of the West have sought to reimpose their influence, through military intervention in Libya, and by turning a blind eye to Saudi intervention in Bahrain, but as the Associated Press reported on Monday, “10 years after 9/11, the dominant theme in the uprisings across the Middle East is a clamor for democracy — with al-Qaeda’s militant ideology largely relegated to the sidelines.” The AP added that the millions of young people who participated in the uprisings in the Middle East “have not used violence to press their demands. Their ultimate aim is not the creation of the Islamic theocracies that bin Laden preached, but free democracies.”
Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic jihadi movements, told the AP that, in countries where 60 percent of the population is under 30 and the 9/11 attacks “are at best a childhood memory,” bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s message had become irrelevant. “It is the Wael Ghonim era, not bin Laden,” he said, talking about the Google executive who became a hero of the Egyptian uprising in February, adding, “It was the soft power of Ghonim and his associates, not bin Laden’s crude power, that led to regime change.”
I only hope that, in triumph, America will also realize that soft power is better than crude power, but everything about the assassination — and the Wild West-style celebrations of vengeance in the US — as well as the Obama administration’s unwillingness to secure bin Laden alive, and to put him on trial, indicates that this will not be the case.
Originally published on Cageprisoners.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.