President Obama’s late Sunday announcement that Osama bin Laden, the world’s most-wanted fugitive terrorist, had been killed in Pakistan by an American special forces unit marked a uniquely symbolic and long-sought victory against terrorism and a defining moment, as well, for the president and for the families of the victims who died on Sept. 11, 2001. It will not extinguish acts of terrorism by al-Qaida extremists and those on its fringes, but it makes good on this nation’s pledge of unrelenting pursuit of justice for the murders of innocents and their assaults on the United States and our citizens.
The announcement prompted spontaneous celebrations in the streets of New York and the nation’s capital, the cities where more than 3,000 died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck by the airliners commandeered by the 9/11 terrorists in a plot masterminded by bin Laden.
If it was not surprising that the raid that led to his death came in Pakistan, the circumstances surrounding the raid were. Bin Laden’s lair was not in the notorious tribal lands of Pakistan’s mountainous northwest border region. He was found, instead, in mid-sized city just an hour’s drive north of Pakistan’s capital, residing in a high-walled compound close to both a Pakistani military academy and a large military base.
Final preparations for the raid on the compound were reviewed in the White House by intelligence, military and administration officials in a series of five meetings beginning in mid-March, all chaired by President Obama. He signed off on the raid last Friday morning just before he left to see the tornado damage in Alabama. Once Obama received word of the mission’s success, he called his predecessor — George W. Bush — to inform him of bin Laden’s demise.
The irony of the mission’s success is striking on several levels. Bush announced the hunt for bin Laden, but quickly shifted his war focus from Afghanistan to a complicated and needless war in Iraq, where bin Laden then had no adherents and al-Qaida no base. Bush’s efforts to capture or kill bin Laden never paid off. It was Obama, who took office promising to “kill” bin Laden, who reorganized and re-energized the intelligence infrastructure and made the hunt for bin Laden a top priority.
Obama’s critics, moreover, have charged that his foreign policy and anti-terrorism policies were weak. In fact, he has proved far more willing than Bush to prod Pakistan to quit its under-handed support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to keep searching in Pakistan for bin Laden despite that country’s insistence that bin Laden was not there.
The nature of the raid underscored Obama’s focus on both goals. He has pursued an intensive campaign of drone attacks on suspected Taliban retreats in Pakistan despite Pakistani resentment. And he wisely withheld information from Pakistan’s two-faced government about the raid on bin Laden’s hideout until it was over.
Though some Obama critics now may be likely to question the proof that bin Laden was killed because his body was quickly buried at sea, DNA proof is said to have confirmed his death. Burial of his body at sea seems wise; it deprives his followers of a shrine to terrorism.
Obama correctly emphasized, to be sure, that al-Qaida extremists may try to retaliate for the death of bin Laden. Yet bin Laden’s legacy of terrorism and his vision of re-creating a seventh century style of Islamic extremism never found wide purchase. Ordinary Muslims never embraced it. Indeed, al-Qaida actions have killed far more Muslims than the extremists ever converted to their warped cause.
The revolutions and protests for democratic reform in Muslim lands across the Middle East in recent months, moreover, have demonstrably invalidated bin Laden’s vision. Political and individual liberties, not radical extremism, are the evident goal of ordinary Muslims.
Bin Laden’s extremism never resonated. Bringing him to justice is the end he deserved.