The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by American Special Forces feels like the closing of a traumatic chapter. Two destructive wars, countless terrorist outrages across the world, the staining of the reputation of the world's most powerful nation: they all flowed from the September 2001 terror attacks on the United States. And now the architect of that original globe-shaking atrocity has, finally, been wiped out. A decade of running and hiding by the world's most notorious terrorist ended yesterday with a bullet to the head in an anonymous house in a quiet town north of Islamabad.
Crowds, waving the Stars and Stripes, celebrated in front of the White House yesterday. Relatives of those killed when planes scythed into the Twin Towers wept for joy in Lower Manhattan. For them this was, understandably, a moment of catharsis. Yet the truth is that in the struggle against Islamist terrorism, Bin Laden's death is likely to be of symbolic, rather than practical, importance. The killing might well demoralise those around the globe who still regard Bin Laden as a spiritual leader, a totem of resistance to the West. But in terms of operational significance, his importance was negligible.
It is well understood by global intelligence agencies that al-Qa'ida has become a franchised organisation. There are autonomous terror cells in the US, France, Spain, Italy, and, of course, Britain. According to the head of MI5, there are some 2,000 individuals here who pose a threat to national security. The German police announced last week that they had foiled a plot to bomb a crowded area of Dusseldorf. Such groups do not need Bin Laden's instruction or approval to perpetrate their crimes. The snake's head might have been struck off, but the body still lives. The warnings issued by governments yesterday about the danger of reprisal attacks in the days and months ahead are sadly warranted.
Yet Bin Laden's abominable achievement was less the global violence he inspired or the organisation he built, than the manner in which he managed to manipulate the world's superpower. He wanted to provoke the US into using its formidable military might in the Muslim world, calculating that a heavy-handed US reaction would help to radicalise quiescent populations and inspire them rise up against the Western-backed regimes of the Middle East. He imagined that a new unified Islamic empire, to match the great Caliphates of the Middle Ages, would then be constructed in their stead.
His first attempts to provoke with the bombing of US embassies in East Africa in 1998 and then the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 failed. But with 9/11 he finally succeeded. America stumbled into the trap he set. George Bush responded to 911 by declaring a global "war on terror". A punitive mission in Afghanistan, which had hosted Bin Laden, turned into a messy occupation. Then came the attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, one of the most disastrous wrong turnings in recent history. Rather than striking a blow against terror, the invasion turned that nation into a honey pot for murderous fanatics. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the ensuing civil war. And the perpetrators of the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005 were all motivated, in part, by what they interpreted as a new Western crusade against the Muslim world.
But perhaps the greatest injury was self-inflicted. The methods adopted by the Bush Administration – the use of torture, kidnapping and the creation of the legal black hole in Guantanamo Bay – all sullied the reputation of America and handed the acolytes of Bin Laden a potent propaganda weapon. The previous Labour government here in Britain followed the US down that dead end with its gratuitous erosion of civil liberties in the name of protecting the public from terror. The malign repercussions of those strategic follies will persist for many years to come.
And while Bin Laden is gone, the rivers that nourished the roots of his brand of fanaticism are still swollen. Saudi Arabia continues to export the intolerant doctrines of Wahhabi Islam, which help to alienate Muslims around the world. It is a creed that has put the very future of the state of Pakistan in peril. The fact that Bin Laden was living for so long under the noses of the Pakistani military establishment is profoundly depressing. David Cameron caused a diplomatic row last year when he suggested that the Pakistan state, which has been the recipient of billions of dollars in military aid from the US, "looks both ways" when it comes to terrorism. But, more than ever, that now sounds like a painfully accurate summary.
Yet Western governments also look both ways when it comes to extremism and intolerance in the Muslim world. Despite the Arab uprisings, the West is still coddling repressive regimes that show a friendly face and promise to keep the oil flowing. Nato is bombing Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya. But the decision of Bahrain to sentence a group of demonstrators to death, after a trial behind closed doors, has been met with silence from Western states. We remain selectively blind when confronted with injustice in the Middle East.
In one sense Bin Laden's baleful legacy is all around. His shadow can been seen in the terror cells across Europe, the British and US troops still dying in Afghanistan, the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. But in another way, his influence has waned dramatically. In recent months millions of people across the Arab world have risen up against their repressive rulers. But they are not demanding the cruel theocracy that Bin Laden stood for, but democracy, dignity and freedom. These are still early days, but it is to be hoped that the Arab Spring will, in time, come to represent Bin Laden's ultimate failure.Reuse content