My first contribution to the ongoing hyper-covered story – this one for the Oriental Morning Post. Some more bits on this forthcoming. For the whole thing in Mandarin see here (have also pasted it below including images).

Is the War Over?

The death of Osama bin Laden is unlikely to make any major difference in the immediate war on terrorism, but nonetheless it is a big psychological victory for the United States. Historians will look back at this moment as a major marker in the conflict against Al Qaeda and her affiliates, and it is likely the beginning of a long trajectory by which the group slowly fades as the global force that it previously was. Coming almost ten years after Al Qaeda burst into the world’s collective consciousness, this is a significant moment that closes an important chapter in recent history.

The immediate impact to China of this event is going to be limited – but it is going to mark a shift in America’s involvement in South Asia and this will have major longer-term repercussions for the region.

The relief at his death was tangible in Washington, where less than an hour after the news had broken, crowds gathered outside the White House waving flags and singing the national anthem. President Obama spoke of “the death of bin Laden” as the “most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.” And for the large industry of commentators, thinkers and security officials that had been trying to track him down or read what his next move was going to be, this is indeed an important moment. At a personal level, as someone who has been following his movement as a researcher for many years, it feels like something important has indeed taken place. Some certainty that progress is being made by the forces trying to defeat Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, concerns remain about what this means in practical terms.

Osama bin Laden first founded Al Qaeda in the wake of his experiences as a young man fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. A young idealist who gave up a life as a Saudi prince to live the life of a travelling holy warrior, he decided that victory against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was not enough. Instead, he wanted to push on and defeat the other great power of the day America, showing the power of God’s message. And so he launched a global jihad against America and her allies, creating in Sudan, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan a set of mobile training camps were other holy warriors could come and train with him before being sent back to carry out their deadly trade wherever they were able.

And initially, the organization Al Qaeda (whose name translates as “The Base”) was directly ruled and controlled by this man. He was closely involved with the plotting of the organization’s first attacks: the 1998 double bombings of US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania that killed some 200 people; the 2000 attack on a US battleship off Yemen that resulted 19 deaths; and the 2001 attack on New York and Washington that led to some 3,000 deaths. It was this last attack that brought him to global attention, leading to American invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and an explosion globally of interest in his extremist message of imposing Islamic shariah law violently around the world.

But this reaction also forced him to go underground. Reports to emerge from his inner circle show that he may not have been expecting the sort of reaction that his attacks got, and as a result his role as an operational manager for the group seems to have gone down as he withdrew into hiding.

Instead, the direct operational role of plotting terrorist attacks to advance his ideas has been taken up by many middle managers in his organization that have plotted and carried out numerous attacks around the world in his name. Plots in London, Istanbul, Tunisia, Bali, and across Afghanistan and Pakistan can all be linked to the group he founded. In addition to this, the message that he proclaimed found a resonance amongst other terrorist networks in different parts of the globe. Groups in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen all claimed some part of his message and started to publish messages in which they directly praised and thanked him for his leadership. And beyond these organized groups, young overexcited men and women seeking meaning in their lives found his message of global anti-Americanism appealing and tried to carry out actions in its name.

No matter how decreased his role as an operational leader was, however, his role as a figurehead for Al Qaeda and for the global Islamist movement was significant. His regular recorded messages from what we now know was a compound in Abbottabad were waited for with baited breath and listened to attentively by followers around the world. His continuing concealed existence was a symbol to radicals that the war was ongoing and that victory was maybe possible. And his death within this context is important both for those who are fighting for him and against him. This is a war of ideas and he was the lead messenger for the other side.

Of course, Al Qaeda’s many affiliate groups will use this as an opportunity to strike back at the west. Cells connected to the core network operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan will no doubt take this as a sign to attempt to launch attacks globally. And beyond this immediate reaction, in the medium-term we will continue to see regional groups from North Africa, Somalia and Yemen attempting to launch deadly strikes from their bases. Already this year we have seen numerous deadly attacks around the world and it is likely that they will continue. The war will go on.

But nevertheless, an important leader has been killed by what was an audacious and verifiable strike by American forces in Pakistan. This shows that the west is able to strike successfully and is indeed fighting a war in which it is slowly grinding its enemy Al Qaeda down, something that makes people fighting for Al Qaeda’s ideas on the ground increasingly question what they are doing. In much the same way that the civil unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya confused Al Qaeda since it showed that people could overthrow long-term dictators using public protest and did not have to resort to mass murder as Osama bin Laden and his friends called for, his death must make them wonder about what their prospects of victory are. No matter what is said, his death will help lower Al Qaeda’s global appeal to some degree.

The significance of all of this to China is somewhat low in the short term. China was, and is, seen as a second tier target by the group. But in the long term this signifies that American attention and involvement in Afghanistan and South Asia is going to decrease. President Obama had been looking for a way to get out of the wars he inherited since he came into office and this will now give him a clear signal that he accelerate this process. Ten years on from Al Qaeda’s most successful strike against the west in September 2001, the United States government has the lead plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Guantanamo and has now killed the ideological head of the group. While American security planners know this is not the end of Islamist inspired terrorism against them, politicians know that the problem will now slowly be relegated into second place in the public’s attention. And this means that a process that had already started with President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan last year will continue as the President tries to extricate his nation from the religiously fuelled civil wars that are causing so much misery in South Asia.

The danger to China comes in the details of how the assassination strike was carried out. Early news reports indicate that the operation was conducted by American forces with limited Pakistani knowledge or awareness, something that is unsurprising from the perspective of the current high tensions between Pakistan and the United States. But it also seems as though Osama was living in a rather obvious compound not far from the capital, under conditions that seem like they should have been noted at the nearby military bases. The suggestion therefore is that the Pakistani government is still not tackling the beast of radicalism within its country effectively, and this means that a terrorist haven of some sort still exists on China’s borders.

This is of course something that also remains an American and western problem. In the past few years, we have seen a number of large-scale and high profile plots be organized and directed from Pakistan and in the wake of Osama’s death these will continue. Clearly, American and NATO security forces in Afghanistan will need to continue to fight on the ground to make sure these plots are not able to succeed and until Afghanistan can at last become a safe and stable country from where such plots cannot be organized. But the death of Osama means that the heart of the issue from a western public’s perspective has been removed and Al Qaeda will increasingly be spoken of in the past tense. Politicians will focus on it less and the public will generally move onto worrying about other threats – unless, that is, there is another attack in America that is larger or on the same scale as 9/11.

The result will be a continuing de-escalation of American and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Some presence will remain to make sure plots that are still being organized are disrupted before they can reach western shores, but the overall presence will go down. This means that it will be increasingly up to those in the region to try to address the long-term strategic issue of Pakistan as a center of extremism and as a nuclear-armed state with individuals in positions of influence who still seem in some ways sympathetic towards extremists that have supported international terrorists.

Osama bin Laden’s death is an important marker in the conflict against violent Islamist extremism, but it is not the end. It is, however, going to seen by historians as one of the steps along the path to the end.


 作者 潘睿凡   发表于2011-05-03 02:54




















拉丹之死是在与伊斯兰极端主义的斗争中的重大事件,但这并不是斗争的终点。历史学家将会看到,这不过是通向终点的一步而已。(白澜 译)

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