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Unfinished tasks

Print edition : Jun 03, 2011 T+T-
PAKISTAN ARMY TROOPS on guard outside the house where bin Laden was killed, on May 5.-ANJUM NAVEED/AP

PAKISTAN ARMY TROOPS on guard outside the house where bin Laden was killed, on May 5.-ANJUM NAVEED/AP

Osama bin Laden has been killed, but it will be dangerous to write off the power he still wields in the minds of his supporters.

WE are slowly coming to grips with the fact that Osama bin Laden is gone. Prudence demands that we prepare ourselves adequately and judiciously to meet the challenges to the peace flowing from his killing, particularly the vaguely predicted violent responses from his followers.

There is speculation galore on what shape such reprisal will take and where exactly it will be staged. There seems to be no difference of perceptions on this. Wild conjectures that thrive on non-availability of credible intelligence inputs are the order of the day. It is a field day for analysts who would like to capitalise on the credulousness of average citizens willing to lap up any information that comes their way. One must at the same time concede that a life without predictions and rumours is uninteresting.

So much has been written in the past few days by a wide spectrum of columnists that it is difficult to sound original or profound. Nevertheless, there is a need for debate and contemplation on the sequence of events.

There is near consensus that bin Laden is as dangerous to ignore in death as it was to ignore him when he was alive. Not that he cast a spell on far too many people. While this was so, there was undeniably a fair number of people who paid obeisance to him because of his ability to arouse passions against the non-Muslim world. He was not an orator of any great merit. Nor did he choose to appear in public often to connect with those who wanted to understand and act on what he stood for.

Most of the time bin Laden was in hiding, and he spoke through others in the second rung of his movement or was content with video messages. Pictures released by the United States after his death show him watching himself on television in his Abbottabad hideout. Was this a sort of narcissism?

Well-defined constituency

He made no pretences of being an intellectual or being driven by a well-honed ideology. He was blunt and coarse, seeking violence against infidels, an expression that included all those who reposed no faith in Islam even if they were not opposed to that religion. The fact that calls for special prayers in his memory hardly evoked any response, either in Pakistan or elsewhere, should not lull one into complacency. He had a well-defined constituency, however small it was, which will survive and might indulge in blind recklessness. This is hard to controvert. Care in public safety measures is therefore an imperative as much as before. Over the years, especially after 9/11, the bin Laden name acquired an aura across most of the globe, especially Europe, West Asia and parts of South Asia. This happened because he made sure he was not in the news too often. As a result, a lot of romance has got attached to his name. This is why it is difficult to sanitise some sections of people against what bin Laden stood for.

An effort should be made, however, to disseminate the message that he caused more harm to the Muslim community than good. It is not very difficult to prove that among the many who perished in the actions ordered by him were a large number of Muslims. President Barack Obama was blunt about this while announcing bin Laden's death to the rest of the world. Pointing out that the latter was responsible for the killing of many Muslims, Obama was categorical that Abbottabad was by no means an anti-Muslim operation on the part of the U.S.

Sceptics will say that such propaganda will never wash when minds are heavily clouded by bigotry. This is a dubious argument in support of inaction. A continual offensive against bin Laden on these lines will help wean away unsuspecting and gullible youths from terrorist leanings, as long as such propaganda is factual and avoids sophistry. This is the minimum one can do to detoxify the scene. Or else, there are enough vengeful elements who have stakes in perpetuating the horror that bin Laden inflicted on hapless populations.

A campaign that seeks to expose his hollowness and spite obviously cannot be state sponsored. It will have to come from sensible and moderate Muslim leaders in the community with a reputation for honesty and objectivity and who have at heart the good of future generations of Muslims all over the globe. If such a movement does not begin immediately, those opposed to it will have gained an early lead.

Thanks to my travels in the past few weeks, I have become convinced that unless one pushes up the stakes for Muslim youth in society, some of them will continue to be vulnerable to the machinations of those who stand for terrorism. Education and large-scale economic opportunities are the need of the hour. It is not anybody's case that this is not receiving attention. It is only that the task has acquired new urgency against the backdrop of the reverse that terrorism has suffered in the elimination of bin Laden.

There is a certain complacency flowing from the fact that Al Qaeda did not directly carry out any major action on Indian soil and was content with endorsing whatever the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Jaish-e-Mohammad did to disturb peace here. The argument is that bin Laden was not very relevant to India. This is specious and too superficial a view to take in the current context. It could prove costly. The bin Laden appeal among misguided elements continues. It may not be obvious, but it is strong enough to ignite a delicate situation.

The Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) successful strike in Abbottabad deserves kudos, if one recalls its past goof-ups. A deliberate and well-planned operation is the first step to triumph. If media reports are to be believed, the target was under observation for quite a while months, maybe years. There is no reliable information. There is however everything to indicate that the house in question was under close watch. I know personally there is a huge element of luck in all such operations. Obama does seem to have had it in abundant measure. The picture of him being closeted with his advisers during the crucial hours of May 1-2 was impressive. One would like to see it happening in India, notwithstanding the fact that there is no CEO of the White House kind.

Symbolically, however, a decisive leadership that takes personal responsibility for the consequences of such adventures would not be unwelcome to India. It may not, however, happen, and not merely because the Indian Prime Minister does not have the type of authority the U.S. has. There are times at which individuals rise beyond their office to meet a grave situation that demands immediate decisions.

There is no personal aggrandisement here. There is only a public interest that needs to be seen to. Whether such a figure will emerge in a country where extra constitutional centres of power dominate the scene is a pertinent question. Ask the younger generation. One will find it decisively in favour of the dash of a U.S. President rather than the sobriety (read sometimes as vacillation) of an Indian Prime Minister. But this is only digressing from the basic point of the need for quick action in a dynamic situation such as a terrorist attack, which brooks no delay.

Another striking aspect of the U.S. action in Abbottabad was that it was backed up and facilitated by remarkably accurate intelligence. There was admittedly here a combination of HUMINT (HUMan INTelligence) and intelligence collected through technology. This is a classic instance of the complementarity of two sources of collecting information. This is nothing novel or extraordinary. Readers must remember the complexity and enormity of the problem of infiltrating terrorist groups, who are highly motivated, and thereafter subverting the loyalties of any of their members for the purpose of extracting information on their doings.

When such motivation is laced with religious fanaticism, the task is near impossible. It is, therefore, highly creditable that the CIA could get hold of a courier either through deception or by sheer force and get to know of bin Laden's location. Both luck and perseverance possibly played a major role.

Indian agencies have also had some minor successes of this kind, which, for obvious reasons, have not been widely publicised. The litmus test for them will be in respect of Dawood Ibrahim and those involved in the planning and execution of the Mumbai terror attacks, including Hafiz Saeed. Any success here will give them the boost they richly deserve.

I can guess they are already under pressure to produce, from a demanding Home Minister who means business and impatient sections of the population. Interesting days are therefore ahead.