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Analysis: Death of US public enemy no. 1

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, a postdoc at the Center for Modern European Studies, University of Copenhagen offers her immediate thoughts on the implications of this death for the United States and the world

The news of the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, and the well-crafted speech by Barack Obama that delivered it was a much needed addition to Obama’s political campaign which otherwise was seeing dwindling support.

The president appears in charge, effective and at the same time aware of the sensitive balance he has to maintain between pleasing the US voters and not angering America’s international allies (and in particular Pakistan).

For example, in his speech he makes sure he does not appear anti-Islam and explicitly calls Bin Laden a »killer of Muslims«, in an attempt to appease potential negative reactions from the Muslim world.

In opinion polls done in the direct aftermath of the news, Obama saw a popularity boost, with 56 per cent approving of his presidency. At the news of the death of their public enemy no. 1, many Americans in cities like DC and New York took to the streets in joyful celebration. However, both this enthusiasm and Obama’s popularity are likely to subside in the long period remaining before the elections. At the same time, Twitter flows also show feelings of insecurity and fear, or ambivalence at the thought of cheering someone being killed.

A twitter quote illustrates this ambivalence:

»I’m glad Bin Laden is no longer a threat to the US. I’m proud of the poise and maturity of our president. Beyond that, I’m mostly just sad, « says @graceishuman

No Bin Laden T-shirts for sale

So perhaps indeed Osama’s death comes too late by many years. Had it happened in 2002 or 2003 the president would have undoubtedly won any upcoming elections. Happening today, the political clout that it brings is important, but not decisive. Even so, the Twitter joke goes:

»Just heard that All Republicans running for Pres have dropped out except Sarah Palin who doesn’t know who Bin Laden was«, says @deanofcomedy

As far as one can judge from the outside, Osama Bin Laden slowly lost his cult status in the Muslim world. This is judging by references to his name, or by the number of paraphernalia circulating out there.

As Nicholas Kristof says on his blog at the New York Times:

»Popular opinion has moved more against him, and you no longer see Osama t-shirts for sale in the markets. «

Likely that Al Qaeda will continue

Killing Osama does not mean the removal of a leader but the disappearance of a fading star. The good part for the US may be that the chances of Osama becoming a true martyr and thus living on as an icon of the fight against America (and Israel) are much reduced today from 5-8 years ago.

Osama Bin Laden’s loss of personal significance also implies that his death will not deeply affect the state of things. It is unclear how many of the planned Al Qaeda attacks after 2007 have been masterminded by Osama Bin Laden himself, or how many of such plans currently in the works emanated from him. It is likely that Al Qaeda will continue its operations from Pakistan, even in the absence of its most famous leader.

The relationship between Pakistan and the US may deteriorate in the short run, as Islamabad is critical of US attacks on its territory.

Symbolic significance

However, in the long run it is likely that the two states will continue to co-operate in their fight against Al Qaeda and other paramilitary organizations based in Pakistan.

The death of Bin Laden will not lead to the end of the war in Afghanistan just as it will not stop the terrorist work of Al Qaeda. Taliban leaders distanced themselves long ago from Bin Laden and from his organization, and Al Jazeera reports that the signals sent by the Talibans in Afghanistan have been clear: the fight will continue just as before.

The removal of Bin Laden then carries mostly a symbolic significance. In particular in the US, it bears the hope that the end of the 9/11 era is over and that the return of a democratic normality will soon be on the agenda. A critical reassessment of legislation curtailing civil liberties and closing the Guantanamo prison would be the first step towards normality.

Let’s see if Obama will have the courage to act on his newly acquired political capital.

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