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Moment that mattered: Osama Bin Laden is killed

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

“I was as surprised as anybody else when I found out Bin Laden had been killed, because I had heard from multiple people in the US government that the trail had gone cold. Typically people do get caught eventually, whether it’s Karadži´c or Mladi´c but in my mind it could have gone on for another ten years. Look at Eichmann: it took 15 years for the Israelis to find him, and it was not for a lack of trying. It was totally unsurprising, though, that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. He spent much of the 1980s living there, he founded Al-Qaeda in 1988 in Peshawar, and this was a place he was very comfortable in.

When I met Bin Laden in 1997 I was expecting a table-thumping revolutionary, but he turned out to be very low-key, quite thoughtful and intelligent. He had been a religious zealot since the age of 13. His idea of fun as a teenager was to get a group of buddies together and chant religious songs about Palestine: even by the standards of 1970s Saudi Arabia, he stood out as somebody who was very observant. And when that religious zealotry fused with the military experience he gained fighting the Soviets it became a pretty combustible mix.

Bin Laden was someone who learned all the wrong lessons. He thought that America was a weak version of the Soviet Union that could be defeated, and that it would pull out of the Middle East if enough pressure was applied. That turned out to be wrong, and just as Pearl Harbor was a tactical victory but a strategic error for Imperial Japan, 9/11 was a huge tactical victory and a strategic disaster for Al-Qaeda. It never recovered to where it was on 10th September 2001. It was very hard to understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but with the benefit of ten years and a rear-view mirror we can see that Al-Qaeda got lucky, and that 9/11 was the climax of its activities, not the beginning.

Al-Qaeda has changed a lot since it was created by Bin Laden. The group that existed in pre-9/11 Afghanistan was highly bureaucratised: it even had generous vacation policies for its members. It had 36 pages of by-laws in English, it was paying people salaries: bigger salaries if they had more than one wife. It was really running a sort of parallel state, and all that got obliterated when the Americans invaded.

Even before the Arab Spring, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world, and not because the United States or Britain or any other Western country was winning them, but because here was a group that was positioning itself as the defender of Islam and in fact was killing mostly Muslims. This point was widely recognised in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda’s ideas, foot soldiers and leaders have been totally absent from the Arab Spring. I haven’t seen a single picture of Osama Bin Laden or even al-Zawahiri in any of these protests in the Middle East. For somebody who was keen to talk about everything, Bin Laden was very quiet on the issue, because the outcomes weren’t going to be to his liking. The one thing people aren’t asking for in Egypt or Libya is a Taliban-style theocracy, his preferred end state.

I think there is a concern that Al-Qaeda has infected other South Asian groups with its ideas: Lashkar-e-Taiba was a very provincial group focused on attacking India, but went out of its way to kill Americans, other Westerners and Jews in Mumbai in 2008. And this is now a large-scale group with substantial above-ground capacity in Pakistan. It operates a bit like Hezbollah, with hospitals and welfare services and everything else. And then the Pakistani Taliban sent suicide bombers to Barcelona in 2008 and a suicide bomber to Times Square in 2010. The fact that these other groups that don’t call themselves Al-Qaeda are operating in a more Al-Qaeda-like manner is worrisome.

But as for the longest war between American and Al-Qaeda, I think it finally began to wind down in 2011. There are people who say that the war on terrorism isn’t over: of course terrorism as a tactic is not going to go away, and there will always be somebody somewhere in the world that is attracted to these ideas. But the ability for Al-Qaeda to carry out a 9/11-style attack is very constrained. This group will continue to be something of a threat, but will it be an existential threat or even a big problem? I’m pretty sceptical.”

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