Robert Fisk: The al-Qa'ida leader knew he was a failure. Now US has turned him into martyr

The West has taught a different lesson to the people of the Middle East: that executing opponents is perfectly acceptable

Robert Fisk
Thursday 05 May 2011 00:00 BST

Bin Laden got his just deserts – those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword – but did he get the "justice" that President Obama talked about? Many Arabs – and this theme was taken up by the Arab press, which spoke of his "execution" – thought he should have been captured, taken to the international court in The Hague and tried.

Of course there will always be those who do and will believe he was a brave martyr ignominiously murdered by the proxy arm of "Zionism". Islamist groups in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and many ulema in south-west Asia have said as much already. In reality, needless to say, he was a has-been. His promises of overthrowing the pro-American or non-Islamic Arab dictators were fulfilled by the people of Egypt and Tunisia – and perhaps soon by Libyans and Syrians – not by al-Qa'ida and its violence.

The real problem, however, is that the West, which has constantly preached to the Arab world that legality and non-violence was the way forward in the Middle East, has taught a different lesson to the people of the region: that executing your opponents is perfectly acceptable.

One may say that after thousands of innocent lives taken so bloodily, Bin Laden could expect to be killed, unarmed, in a presumed safe house. Muslims, on the other hand, will conclude that the Americans adopted the very same methods the Israelis use on their Palestinian enemies.

"Targeted killing", the Israelis call it when they fire missiles or release bombs on their enemies, often killing the innocent as well as the guilty – just as the Americans often do in their drone attacks against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban in Waziristan.

Despite the American desire to prevent the creation of a shrine – which led to Bin Laden's secret burial in the Arabian Sea – Bin Laden, as a Salafist and a Saudi, would have wished to have an unmarked grave. He and his supporters believe grave markers are idolatrous; hence the Saudi desire to bury their dead unmarked and to destroy ancient shrines rather than to create them.

But in the end, his unarmed death has turned him into a greater martyr than if he had been killed in the "firefight" that Obama originally claimed – quite wrongly – had caused his death. All in all, the man who regarded his own achievement as the creation of al-Qa'ida lived just long enough to realise it had totally failed in its objectives.

And having met the man and talked to him for many hours, I sometimes wonder now if he wanted to go on living.

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