x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

It is the legacy of peacemakers that will be remembered

The killing of Osama bin Laden is the final chapter in al Qa'eda's false narrative, says a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Many questions remain, but bin Laden's ideology has now been swept aside.

The sudden killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan triggers a complex mixture of emotions, memories and conclusions. Nearly all of us remember where we were on September 11, 2001. Others remember hoping that bin Laden would be quickly captured or killed. And some of us recall working with brave men and women dedicated to hunting him down, denying him access to terrorist financing and dealing with the ideological cesspool that he so viciously promoted.

Just four weeks after the attacks of September 11, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smouldering, I landed at night in Riyadh to take charge of my mission as the new US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

At the time of my October arrival, coalition forces had just begun bombing the Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, with many sorties launched from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh. I began spending hours with US generals and civilian leaders, as well as their Saudi counterparts, who were working to defeat the Taliban and find bin Laden. I received a letter of heartfelt apology and condolence from the head of the bin Laden family, obviously devastated by the unthinkable evil of his half-brother.

Over the ensuing months, I was alerted several times by my intelligence officers with hopeful signals that we had bin Laden in our sights. In the depths of the coalition operations centre, I monitored giant screens depicting drone attacks on murky images of convoys believed to include bin Laden. None of the attacks found their elusive target.

Perhaps bin Laden's greatest blunder was his decision to launch an attack within Saudi Arabia. On May 12, 2003, al Qa'eda suicide bombers struck three housing compounds in Riyadh, killing a number of Americans - and even more Saudis and other Muslims. If there had been any doubt about the commitment of the Saudi leadership to take the offensive against bin Laden and al Qa'eda, it was resolved that night.

Immediately the Saudi security forces went after al Qa'eda cells and those harbouring them. Saudi citizens, outraged over the attack on innocent civilians in their homeland, began providing tips to Saudi intelligence. Over time, al Qa'eda's threat was dramatically reduced in the kingdom and its adherents were largely dispersed to Yemen and other locations.

It is no small irony that the Arab spring we are witnessing has demonstrated how irrelevant al Qa'eda and bin Laden have become to the aspirations of millions of citizens in this part of the world. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media have allowed protesters to communicate with each other, and to promote agendas of change.

Instead of resorting to suicide bombings, the people are sensing their empowerment through other means. In many cases, it is the authorities who are instigating the violence. Bin Laden's ideology has been swept aside in favour of a largely nonviolent and ever more hopeful regional narrative. Bin Laden's version of jihad has thus far been rejected in Cairo, Tunis and other corners of the Arab world.

Now that justice has been dealt to bin Laden, what next? First, there will be questions to answer. How did bin Laden manage to live undetected in a large villa in a city not far from Islamabad? Did the Pakistanis help find him - or conceal him? Who knew what? How does bin Laden's death affect the struggle in Afghanistan? Will his death influence the attitudes of the tribes and villagers in the region? Will other al Qa'eda leaders emerge, and if so, how effective will they be?

These events also bring into relief the ongoing agony of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The failure to resolve this political and humanitarian crisis will continue to provide oxygen to ignite violent acts of hopelessness and desperation. Can the actors in the region, with responsible, firm coaxing from their neighbours and the international community, take risks for peace to drive yet another nail into the coffin of extremism?

While it will take time for the answers to these questions to emerge, one thing is clear: the ongoing struggle for progress and empowerment in the region will be fought less by soldiers and agents in camouflage wearing night-vision goggles, and more by doctors and lawyers, truck drivers and shopkeepers, and economic and community development personnel wearing coats, ties, jeans, khandouras and abayas. They will commit acts of equal bravery and heroism, likely in the background. But their legacies will long outlast Osama bin Laden.


Robert W Jordan is the former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the partner in charge of the Middle East practice of the law firm Baker Botts