Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims for three decades and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. 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. The government has ordered an inquiry into the intelligence lapse and in a briefing to selected Pakistani journalists the ISI admitted to an intelligence failure in not knowing about the hideout of Osama bin Laden.
Yet we should also remember that the same Pakistani security forces have killed or captured over four hundred al-Qaeda members since 2001, lost over three thousand of their own soldiers and policemen fighting militant groups in Pakistan, and, at times, cooperated closely with US and Western intelligence agencies. Moreover, al-Qaeda tried to kill former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf at least three times.
Understanding these long-standing contradictions within Pakistan’s armed forces and 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 incursion.
The crisis is far worse for Pakistan than a previous national security embarrassment, when the world discovered that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had been selling nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. At that time, the Bush administration chose to cover it up because Pakistan’s cooperation in the “war on terror” was deemed to be of paramount importance. However, unlike A.Q. Khan, bin Laden and his followers have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people since the September 11 attacks, Muslims and non-Muslims, from Iraq to Afghanistan to European capitals like London and Madrid. The victims of these atrocities and the dozens of governments whose countries have been attacked are not likely to be as forgiving as Bush was about Khan if any Pakistanis are found to have been protecting bin Laden all these years.
The question of how …