Originally posted 6:18am BST, May 2.
So, interesting news that OBL is dead, and that the US have his body. News is very slim and I’m sure more shall leak out over the next few days. What is known at this time:-
- OBL is dead
- He was killed in a complex near Abbottabad, Pakistan, some 100km from the capital Islamabad
- Kill in a US operation, with a small number of US military
- US forces have his body
- There were no US casualties
I have just watched Barrack Obama’s presentation live. A few interesting initial thoughts:-
- Took personal credit, both through personally ordering Dir. CIA to make capturing or killing OBL the highest priority, and by giving various military and intelligence operations the go over the last year
- Apparently Asif Ali Zardari (Pres. Pakistan) has informed Obama that he is happy about this
- Took this opportunity to reiterate that this is not a war against Islam
- The attack followed a large amount of intelligence that has been accrued over the last year
Below I have summarised my thoughts on some interesting questions. Of course, I am a long way from being an expert, or even knowledgeable, but what’s the use of the internet if not to put up half-considered and ill-researched thoughts!
What is certain – it’s definitely going to be an interesting couple of weeks…
Islamic terrorism within Pakistan is often more of a nationalistic and political nature than religious. Whilst there is some pressure for a more fundamental reading of the tenets of Islamic faith, often promulgated by clerics for political reasons, I believe this is not always the primary driver.
However, the strong Islamic faith, historical links within the region with peoples in Afghanistan (the Swat area, NE Pakistan, is peopled by descendents of the Yusufzai, one of the four great tribes of Afghanistan, and the FATA has similar links), and related anti-American feeling following the invasion of Afghanistan, has meant that some areas of Pakistan are very pro-AQ/Taliban.
Around May 2009, the Pakistan military staged a major offensive in the Swat area against Taliban militants. Whilst by no means removing Taliban/AQ presence in the area, this was sufficient to remove any separatist plans for the region, and reduce the militant presence and resulting activity to a more asymetric low-intensity form.
The region has however remained as a safer area for Taliban and AQ presence, as can be seen by the small numbers of air strikes from US drone aircraft, and the number of senior leaders who have been killed in the area, such as Mohammad Alam Binouri in early 2010.
The impact of the killing of OBL is difficult to judge. Some very important questions remain, not least whether the US had received permission from the Pakistan leadership for the military action, and how much assistance the Pakistan intelligence services had provided. It is possible that, for operational security reasons, the Pakistan leadership were only involved very late, possibly even after the event. However, if this is the case it is likely that to save face this will be hidden.
Any belief that this killing will lead to a reduction in suicide bombings and other IED events is, I think, ill-founded in the short term. Given that martyrdom is something actively desired by such actors, the death of OBL will have limited impact on morale, although there will be increased nervousness in the planning for any larger terrorist attacks, given that the death of OBL can only have occurred in the event of a serious counter-intelligence failure. There is speculation that OBL has been ill for some time. It is possible that some specific drugs or other medical treatment were the cause of his downfall – that tracking some drugs or similar allowed OBL to be tracked down.
I believe that if anything there will be an uptick in such incidents over the next 3-6 months, as remaining AQ leadership (and especially the previous #2) and other Islamic extremists seek to prove that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, it is possible that the timetables for some other terrorist events may be moved up, due to worries about counter-intelligence.
Finally, the location of OBL, only 100km from the capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad, will likely cause some difficulties within Pakistan. There will be a lot of questions levied against the Pakistan government, and especially about who in the police and intelligence services must have been covering for him, as someone that famous surely shouldn’t have been able to remain hidden there for this long.
When the US and allies invaded Afghanistan, and to a much lesser extent Iraq, one justification given was links with AQ, and that the Taliban were providing shelter for and a launching point for operations by AQ. Over the last 10 years, the type of war and the militant presence has changed greatly. It is now generally believed there is now minimal presence of AQ in Afghanistan – the militant presence there is made up of Taliban (and similar) command and control structures using local untrained ‘troops’ to perform small sting attacks and make use of improvised devices. Civilians are paid (in local terms) huge salaries to fight for the Taliban, in a situation where there is otherwise very little work to do. These salaries are paid from the profits from the drugs trade, and especially Opiates.
Overall, the death of OBL will have minimal impact within Afghanistan. There may be some small drop in morale within Islamic extremist forces, however for a large proportion of ‘the enemy’ the situation in Afghanistan is an economic and political one, and much less a religious one.
AQ have had a bad decade. They had numerous small successes in the 1990s, and then three large successes in the form of New York in 2001, Madrid 2004 (AQ-inspired) and London 2005. However, the invasion of Afghanistan, and establishment of something slightly approximating the poor cousin of law and order there, together with actions by the Pakistan government in Swat and FATA, has caused them serious problems.
These actions have made it much harder to train militants, and to keep them alive when trained. The average suicide bomber requires little to no training, however bombers such as this are not the major threat – the bombers for 9/11 and other large-scale attacks in Western countries were not unschooled extremists who were also earning money for their families, but rather were intelligent extremists with training and knowledge.
Attacks such as 9/11 require three things: people willing to execute them, funding, and training. By invading Afghanistan and the efforts of the Pakistan military, the facilities for training have been greatly reduced. There will always be people willing to commit terrorist attacks, and the military actions haven’t reduced these (other than through attrition), however the associated intelligence activities have. And finally, the money side of things. Intelligence services worldwide have worked to seize AQ funds, and running a war is expensive, so the AQ budget has likely downsized over the years. Now, AQ make much of their money from the Opiates trade, however that is a known link, and one which ‘the west’ have been also trying to fight. I believe this has been successful to a large extent – there has been an increase in kidnappings with ransom demands by AQ and AQ-inspired forces, surely a sign of desperation for funding.
Overall then, what will the impact be on AQ of the death of OBL. Generally minimal, I believe. He had no day-to-day involvement in the running of AQ, but was rather the figurehead. His lieutenants likely are aware of all he knew, so there will be no loss of funds or the like. There will be some concern over the intelligence failures which led to his death, but 20+ years of action by a major terrorist leader is a pretty good record, and one unlikely to put off anyone keen to step into his shoes. Again, I believe there is going to be an uptick in activity in the short-medium term.
4) Barack Obama
Is this Barack Obama’s Falklands moment? What is certain is that this success will provide a significant boost to his ratings. Furthermore, no-one will be able to accuse him of not having the chops for military action and the like – he has been aware of this operation for over a year, and has personally given approval for military action in a foreign (and generally allied) country.
In today’s presentation he made a big deal that this operation was under his control, and following orders he had given – there will be no sharing of the credit with previous presidents. It will be very interesting to see how this is covered in the pro-Republican media (e.g. Fox) – they must be pro-killing-OBL, and pro-military, but will want to find some way to spin things in an anti-Obama direction. Look also towards feedback from Sarah Palin, where she will undoubtedly praise the US military and intelligence services, and say how glad she is that OBL is dead, and then in some way criticise Obama (why did it take so long for CIA to do anything? Why did it take a year to run down the leads – Jack Bauer does it in 24 hours?). And then maybe she’ll throw in some homely quote about mad bears in the wilderness, or something.
Whether the upsurge in goodwill towards Obama will last until November 2012, I don’t know. I wouldn’t hold my breath though. Politics in the US appears to have a very short memory for good things, and a very long one for bad. Depressingly, the best that Obama will likely get is that he’ll finally be able to pass a budget.
5) Who gets the $25 million?
As the action was by US military forces, will anyone get the $25 million reward posted for OBL’s head? Especially given that it sounds like this wasn’t the result of one or two bits of great intelligence, but rather the long-term grind that intelligence normally is. My gut call says that there will be some cloying event at which the money will be awarded to a 9/11 fund, or some charities related to the US military and soldiers injured or killed whilst serving. Complete with photo op…
6) How long until the movie?
Not long. There’ll be something awful within a month or two, and then Oliver Stone or someone (please, not Michael Bay!) will do something which will come out in 18 months. In fact, there may be several movies all within the same few months, seeing as no-one will be able to purchase the rights… Such movie will do very very well in the US, irrespective of how poor it is (hmmm, maybe Michael Bay makes sense) for purely patriotic reasons.
Update: 10:45 BST
There continues to be a dearth of quality information about there, but some interesting points are cropping up:-
- OBL has already been buried at sea
- His body was handled in accordance with Sharia Law, and buried accordingly
- US forces did not necessarily expect OBL at the compound, however did believe it would be someone senior within AQ
- The compound OBL was found in was within 1000 yards of a major Pakistan military training academy (the equivalent of UK’s Sandhurst, or the US’s Fort Benning)
- The specific intelligence failure was that a courier was identified and followed
This information raises more questions than it answers. The first two points are sure to increase the likelihood for nay-sayers and conspiracy theorists. That said, Sharia Law does (I believe – in no way an expert) tend to require that the body be buried as soon as possible, and specifically disallows cremation. By burying at sea (which, however, I don’t know whether it is in accordance with Sharia Law) this removes any grave for people to either worship at, or defile, depending on views. This is in fact no different than the use of an anonymous grave for Hitler, or similar actions by governments throughout the ages.
The location of the compound will continue to raise questions about the competence, and/or loyalty, of factions within the Pakistan government. Whilst initially I had primarily considered the intelligence services and police, it now seems apparent that the military must also be considered. Proximity to such a major training ground makes sense in a sort-of “hide where you won’t be looked for” mentality, however there would be other benefits. In such a location, as long as the correct people are paid off, you’d never be looked for. Also, the proximity of, for example, helicopters, could allow for a fast getaway, again if the correct people are on-side. Finally, I would think there would be the expectation that any military action by the US etc would be very risky, due to the proximity of the Pakistan military, who would likely actively defend themselves if they thought that they were under attack – blue-on-blue being definitely a possibility.
The assertion by the US that the raid followed the identification of a high-level courier, who was then followed/monitored, and then that combined with the very secure compound made it likely there was a senior AQ presence, is interesting. It is an entirely plausible story, and certainly the compound looks out-of-place for that specific town. From an AQ perspective, this information will be extremely useful, as it should prove possible to map out the actions and contacts of that courier, and identify who may have been compromised at first, second, third, etc levels of indirection. As such, I do wonder how true it may be. The US intelligence services must have evaluated the risk from giving out such information, and the only possibilities are that: a) they have already, or are very going to have very shortly, made use of all the intelligence they could, b) there was little other useful intelligence from the courier (maybe he only ran the link between OBL and Al-Jazeera or some other very-specific task), c) they were over-ruled for political reasons, in which case look for leaks accordingly over the next 18 months (potentially timed to cause maximum damage to the Obama campaign), d) it’s not true, and there was some other intelligence failure.