The elimination of Osama Bin Laden by American special forces is a symbolic victory for the United States, which has been after him for 10 years, and for the whole civilized world. But it should not mean any substantial change in the struggle against Al Qaeda. Many countries are rightly on the alert for some spectacular act of vengeance, Bin Laden having long been more of an icon for the cause than an effective chief.
The liquidation of the arch-terrorist whose name has long loomed over the West, comes as a breath of fresh air for Barack Obama. The president has been at pains to emphasize that the mission was carefully planned and personally supervised by himself since Bin Laden's whereabouts became reliably known last August. Obama, who informed George W. Bush prior to his public announcement, has thus at a stroke shaken off the Republican accusations of pusillanimity and gained popularity at home and abroad. The rejoicing that brought out thousands of Americans into the night streets strengthens his once-dwindling credit, and lends support to future decisions.
A task such as the hunting down of Bin Laden, executed in less than an hour but prepared over a period of years, inevitably contains many gray areas. But the key element, and that of greatest implications, is the role played by the Pakistani government. Pakistan, nominally an ally of Washington in the fight against terrorism, a key country in the war in Afghanistan and the receiver of billions in military aid, has been a principal theater of the battle against Al Qaeda and the global jihad. Against all evidence, Islamabad has always denied any link with violent fundamentalism, and has claimed not to know the whereabouts of Bin Laden, or has placed him in remote mountain strongholds on the border with Afghanistan. The discovery that this hidden fortress was in fact a large fortified house in a vacation resort near the Pakistani capital, and a stone's throw from a military academy, raises obvious questions and equally obvious answers in a country controlled by its secret services. The operation to kill Bin Laden, of which Islamabad was informed after the fact, may irreversibly cool relations between the two countries.
While Bin Laden's death is a huge psychological setback for Al Qaeda, no realistic government will lower its guard against Islamist terrorism. Al Qaeda, whose hard core has been battered by American missiles on Pakistani soil, is no longer the hierarchical, centralized network that preceded the September 11 massacres, but a scatter of ever more autonomous local "franchises."
Of greater relevance than the jihad prophet's end is the fact that his ideological line seems to be losing adherents in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda has played no role in the popular revolts in many Arab countries. The Islamist message has been only marginal to the awakening of peoples who yearn for dignity, liberty and democracy- things which are anathema to Bin Laden and his followers.