For three decades Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, has gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. Now he has been killed in a US commando raid on his safe house thirty miles from Islamabad, ten years after he carried out the worst attack ever suffered by the United States and the worst terrorist atrocity in human history. His ideology of global jihad and his acts of terrorism changed the way we all live, our security concerns, and how we conduct politics and business while deeply scarring relations between the Muslim world and the West; his death will have similarly large-scale effects. Many of the security challenges we now face will be more subtle and intricate than the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the past.
The repercussions for nuclear-armed Pakistan and its relations with the US and the rest of the world are immense. Given the circumstances of bin Laden’s death and his apparently lengthy sojourn in a fortified mansion near a military garrison well inside Pakistan, it seems more and more likely that some members of the Pakistani security services or military—or militant groups who have been supported by the state in the past—may have been involved in protecting him. Yet we should also remember that the same Pakistani security forces have killed or captured over 400 al-Qaeda members since 2001, lost over 3,000 of their own soldiers and policemen fighting militant groups in Pakistan, and, at times, cooperated closely with US and Western intelligence. Moreover, al-Qaeda tried to kill former president Pervez Musharraf at least three times.
Understanding these longstanding contradictions within Pakistan’s armed forces and the security services is an enormous challenge for both Pakistan and the West. But clearly answers are now needed, and paradoxically, bin Laden’s demise, though a victory for the fight against extremism in Pakistan—one that Pakistani leaders have welcomed—has made the problem more urgent than ever. There have been demonstrations in several cities condemning the government for allowing the American incursions.