The United States is trumpeting Osama bin Laden’s death as the “biggest victory” in the war on al Qaeda, and rightly so, but officials and analysts say it would be a temporary psychological setback for the terror network and its affiliates and would not affect the ideological discourse Bin Laden has left behind.
“Osama bin Laden was apparently not commanding the overall operations of al Qaeda,” a senior official told The Express Tribune by phone from Islamabad. “The circumstances of his arrest show that he was incommunicado. There was no telephone, no fax, no Internet in the compound where he was killed,” said the official requesting not to be named.
The official said Bin Laden had stopped controlling the network years ago and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri was the de facto head of al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda has no centralised command system. In our region, it draws strength from militant groups such as Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Laskhar-e-Taiba and Harkatul Mujahideen,” he said.
“Elsewhere in the world many different groups are using al Qaeda’s name. I don’t think Bin Laden had any control over all these groups,” he added.
The official thinks Bin Laden’s death will have a significant impact on the Afghan insurgency, though.
“The Taliban have not had much contact with Osama bin Laden for the past 10 years,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement emailed to the media. He also sought to play down the impact of Bin Laden’s death on the Taliban insurgency: “The activity of al Qaeda in Afghanistan was unimportant. All activities were and continue to be conducted by the Taliban.”
But in a striking show of the divisions that have crept up in the Taliban ranks, the TTP, based in the South Waziristan Agency, not only confirmed Bin Laden’s death but also threatened vengeance.
The United States blames the Haqqani network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his sons and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, for providing a rear base to the Afghan Taliban in the North Waziristan Agency. Taliban commander Gul Bahadur holds exclusive sway in the agency.
“The fissures among Pakistani Taliban became visible early this year when Taliban godfather Sultan Amir Tarar, aka Colonel Imam, was executed by the Asian Tigers, a little known militant group affiliated with the TTP,” a tribal source told The Express Tribune. In March, pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman escaped two suicide attacks on his life. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who is ideologically affiliated with Fazl’s JUI-F party, not only denounced the attacks but also promised investigations.
Tribal sources said the TTP’s involvement in these botched attacks could not be ruled out because in April 2007 too they had made an attempt on Rehman’s life. Days before the attack, a JUI-F convention in Peshawar had declared suicide bombings un-Islamic.
Security analysts believe Bin Laden’s death would demoralise the Taliban and further widen the cracks among their ranks. “I think Bin Laden’s death offers an opportunity to strike the death blow,” Professor Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar-based analyst told The Express Tribune by phone.
But he proposed a two-pronged strategy to cash in on this opportunity. “The government should try and reconcile the demoralised elements through talks, and then crack down on ‘irreconcilable’ Taliban,” Prof Hussain said.
He said the Taliban and their affiliates considered Bin Laden as emir al-jihad (leader of jihad). And in his death, they have lost their strategic and tactical leadership, but the ideological discourse he has left behind would continue.
But Professor Dr Altafullah, an expert on tribal affairs, disagreed. “Al Qaeda is not a person, it’s a mindset, it’s an ideology. And I think Bin Laden’s death will not affect the organisation,” he told The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2011.