While the commentators were betting that Syria's Bashar Assad or Libya's Muammar Gadhafi would be the next Arab figure to leave the stage, the Americans went ahead and got rid of Osama bin Laden. Over the past decade bin Laden did more than any other individual in the Arab world to shape the face of the region, and yesterday he went the way of Saddam Hussein. The world will presumably be a slightly more pleasant place without him.
Al-Qaida will not die together with bin Laden because it is not a one-man organization but rather a concept, a loose network of movements inspired by bin Laden's message. Nonetheless his death is of great, albeit primarily symbolic, importance. True, his admirers will honor him as a shahid, a martyr, who completed the holy mission he had preached about for years, but all the same the United States has taken out of the picture the man who was lionized by the masses within the world of radical Islam.
This symbolic victory was won on the battlefield of public awareness, in which symbols are nearly everything. Bin Laden and his supporters, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Sudan, provided inspiration, knowledge and funds. The fact that the United States was capable of reaching the most wily and legendary of its enemies is important in itself. As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, that is a lesson for the entire world.
In a photograph taken in the West Bank city of Jenin yesterday, a member of Islamic Jihad who was wounded in the second intifada can be seen holding up a picture of bin Laden and crying. The Al-Qaida leader's assassination will have far-reaching consequences for all those involved in global jihad, as the death of Ayatollah Khomeini was for Iran's Revolution and the exile of Yasser Arafat was for the Palestinians.
Fearing revenge attacks, the United States raised its alert level yesterday. Bin Laden's supporters will try at first to attack relatively accessible American targets - those located in the Arab world. Later they may consider another attack on American soil, something Al-Qaida has not managed to pull off since September 11, 2001. Such operations require months of preparation, under challenging conditions, including being under constant attack from the West and various Arab governments.
From Islamabad to Gaza
Al-Qaida has suffered serious defeats along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the past year, with hundreds of its people killed in American attacks. On the other hand, the "Arab spring" has created more space for extremist forces in states such as Yemen and Libya where the central government is disintegrating.
Israel is observing the bin Laden assassination from the sidelines, even though Israeli leaders rushed to post videos of their responses on YouTube and to be interviewed on television, as though they had actually played some kind of role in the achievement.
Is there an Israeli angle to all this? Not really. It's hard to believe that Israel provided any intelligence on a location that is so remote, and that isn't one of its priority zones. All the same, there is some similarity between the assassination of bin Laden and the 2008 assassination of senior Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, which Hezbollah attributes to Israel.
Both missions required a sophisticated intelligence and operational effort, though the scope is very different; The United States spent 13 years and untold millions of dollars on the effort to track down bin Laden.
Israel also seems to be off the map in terms of the list of immediate Al-Qaida targets. The danger that Al-Qaida or affiliated groups will carry out an attack on Israeli soil has been discussed for a decade, but so far nothing has happened. There are bin Laden supporters in the Gaza Strip, some of whom are terrorists who sneaked into the area from other countries. But if Katyusha rockets launched in Gaza hit Be'er Sheva tomorrow, it won't be because of bin Laden (even if the Palestinians end up using his assassination as an excuse ).
Radical Muslim leaders around the world rushed to condemn bin Laden's assassination yesterday, including Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who described him as a "warrior for Arab-Muslim Islam." That statement was clearly directed at the Palestinians in Jenin and Rafah but won't win Hamas any points in Washington, especially right before the planned signing of the reconciliation agreement with Fatah. The Palestinian Authority's reaction was totally different, with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad calling bin Laden an "abominable person."
The heart of this story is intelligence. You can say that U.S. President Barack Obamas was just lucky, but bin Laden would not have been killed without patient and thorough groundwork, without good intelligence, planning and implementation. We shouldn't rule out the possibility that U.S. forces were assisted by information gleaned from some of bin Laden's closest associates, especially given that the financial reward the United States can provide is immense.
For all the hard work that went into the operation's success, Obama is still luckier than some of his predecessors.
When Jimmy Carter sent elite forces to rescue American hostages in Tehran, the operation failed, and with it his chances for a second term. Thirty-one years later, bin Laden's death came at just the right time for Obama, as his reelection campaign is about to begin.
Obama also had more luck than George W. Bush, who lost his chance at getting bin Laden when U.S. troops missed apprehending him in Tora Bora in December 2001. Had he succeeded, it's conceivable that the war in Afghanistan might have been shorter and that the Iraq war would never have taken place.
It has been said that Obama's actions are dictated by circumstance, but in successfully ending the hunt for Osama bin Laden the president has shown resolve and persistence. The mission required courage and a willingness to take risks, not just on the part of the commandos but also on the part of the president who sent them.
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