As it came after months of pro-democracy upheavals in the Muslim world this year, the news of the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid on his hideout in Pakistan allows a faint but positive outlook for an end to a decade of intercultural conflicts started by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Yet, whoever shares this somewhat wishful thinking should be wary of retaliation by al-Qaida militants for the “murder” of their supreme leader.
After U.S. Special Forces’ predawn operation to eliminate the United States’ public enemy number one ended in the burial of bin Laden at sea, questions remain. Who will now take over as the top spiritual and strategic leader of the al-Qaida? How cooperative and helpful were the Pakistani authorities in locating the fugitive and crushing him in its territory? Will the success of the operation weaken al-Qaida and destabilize its command structure?
But perhaps the most fundamental question is whether the death of the charismatic leader would divert the nationalistic fervor of Muslim youths away from hatred for the Americans and their European allies and toward calls for freedom and human rights. In the “Jasmine Revolution” sweeping Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, al-Qaida played no part either in support or against; they were irrelevant in the movement that demanded freer life and better provisions.
Political reform and improvement in the quality of life is not what has been pursued by al-Qaida, which came into being out of social instability and dissatisfaction. Osama bin Laden directed attacks on the United States and Europe to destabilize Western governments so that their ties with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East would shrink to allow the creation of a pan-Islamic state. As people power is about to remove dictatorships, terrorists became bystanders.
Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders, including the second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri, have in recent years called for “individual jihad” in their occasional video messages. Analysts pointed to their inability to mount large-scale attack. The fact that bin Laden had been staying in the relative luxury of his specially built hideaway in the affluent town of Abbottabad north of Islamabad after crossing the Afghan border could also mean his semi-retirement from commanding terror.
East Asia has not been exempted from al-Qaida campaigns. It has attacked Indonesian cities over the past few years and Korea has joined in the war on terror with maximum precautions and surveillance of possible infiltrators. While we are extending moral support for the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, however, we have to check ourselves from making premature predictions about the progress of democratic development and a drawdown in terrorism.
The demise of Osama bin Laden was something that we had been waiting for, but one needs to be reminded that an injured animal is often very dangerous.