The media and the manhunt

The media buzz around the death of OBL on May 2, 2011. Published in The Friday Times, 6 May, 2011.

With the first five months of the year, a plethora of changes have happened making world politics unrecognizable from one year before.  One of the biggest was the on May 2 when news of the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Abottabad exploded on TV screens and in newspapers. The facts that Western media has focused on have been that the US led operation focused on one of Bin Ladens trusted couriers and a protégé of one of the architects of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (New York Times, ABC News, US Government). The compound where Bin Laden was hiding was valued at $1 million and had 12 to 18 foot walls with barbed wire. And was 8 to 10 times larger than surrounding houses.

Senior US officials initially told news agencies that Bin Laden’s body would be disposed of in accordance with Islamic tradition, which involves ritual washing, shrouding and burial within 24 hours, and Bin Laden was buried at sea (LA Times, Washington Post). The Guardian was of the view that US concern over Bin Laden’s burial place turning into a shrine were probably unfounded, since the Wahhabi/Salafi tradition rejects such things. “Burial at sea is rare in Islam, though several Muslim websites say it is permitted in certain circumstances. One is on a long voyage where the body may decay… The other is if there is a risk of enemies digging up a land grave and exhuming or mutilating the body – a rule that could plausibly be applied in Bin Laden’s case,” reported the paper.

The news was celebrated in many foreign capitals with crowds gathering outside the White House to celebrate and spontaneous celebration all over the US. French Foreign Minster Alain Juppe called it a “victory for all democracies fighting the abominable scourge of terrorism”. British Prime Minister David Cameron said it would “bring great relief to people across the world” (Express Tribune). The US had warned of possible threats of retaliation (CNN). In UK Heathrow airport has stepped up security and many other countries fear protests. In Pakistan US and UK embassies have put their citizen on high alert.

Headlines across America and Europe on May 2 were ‘The most wanted face of terrorism’ (New York Times), ‘A day for justice’ (Chicago Tribune), ‘An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth’ (Der Spiegel) and ‘Born to privilege, he dies a pariah (Wall Street Journal). Local newspapers however have been skeptical of the facts (Dawn News), and the Television media will undoubtedly resort to more fact digging and speculation.

The Taliban in Afghanistan had no immediate official reaction, though a local commander in Paktia said the killing “will affect their morale and will trigger the violence” and a commander in Baghlan promised revenge (NYT, Guardian). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirmed bin Laden’s death and called it a catastrophe (AFP).

Reports say that officials in the Middle East did not have immediate reactions, and responses were “mixed” on the Arab street (CNN, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times). However Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned the killing and described bin Laden as a “holy warrior” (CNN).

The coming weeks will of course clarify more facts about the operation as well as create more controversies. Dawn News for example said on May 2 that Bin Laden might not have been killed by US forces but his own guard. The paper quotes a Pakistani official who visited the site after the US assault team left, “From the scene of the gun battle it doesn’t look like he could have been killed at point blank range from such a close angle, while offering resistance.”

The western media sees the proximity of a military academy to Bin Laden compounds as an obvious proof of Pakistani military and intelligence being involved in hiding him and other leaders of the Al-Qaeda (BBC, CNN). This reaction is not just isolated to the media but world leaders as well. Israel has called this the “liquidation” of Bin Laden. India lashed out at Pakistan, saying that terrorists find sanctuary in Pakistan (Express Tribune, AFP).

There will again be a reevaluation of the US-Pakistan relationship not only but the respective governments but also by the media. Shuja Nawaz writes for Foreign Policy saying that the Pakistani military’s official reaction to the death of Bin Laden will be telling. If the operation was carried out in close cooperation then the trajectory of this declining relationship may be reversed. Even though Obama has acknowledged the role of Pakistan in the war against terrorism, it is not clear what that role has been with regards to the capture. Foreign media has generally reviewed Pakistan unfavourably and credit for the capture has solely been awarded to the US.

The general consideration of the western media is that only one of head of the Al-Qaeda hydra has been cut off. Der Spiegel is of the view that Bin Laden has left behind one of the most resilient and effective terrorist networks the world has ever seen. The death will weaken Al-Qaeda but for some time now others have been in charge of planning global terrorism. “I suspect the al-Qaeda senior leadership will splinter… this will create a vacuum,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA analyst as when Al-Qaeda leaders became consumed with mere survival, other groups will try to pick up the slack.

The future of terrorism may still be secure. The Taliban is entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorist groups in Yemen, Algeria and Iraq have adopted the Al-Qaeda brand and in Somalia, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are growing. Ayman al-Zawahiri is expected to be number one on the FBI’s most wanted list (ABC News). Reports say that the power balance will shift to Yemen (Der Spiegel). John Brennan, US Chief of Counterterrorism may have spoken too soon when he said that that “Al-Qaeda is something in the past.”

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