End of year review: The death of bin Laden

The top International story of 2011, according to ‘Jerusalem Post’ readers.

situation room watching bin laden raid_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
situation room watching bin laden raid_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
The results are in, and it was close: Just over 34 percent of readers voted the killing of Osama bin Laden as the biggest International story of 2011. In second place was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, with 33% of the vote.
The death of Osama bin Laden on May 2 marked the end of a decade-long manhunt for the lead planner of 9/11. The al-Qaida leader's assassination in northern Pakistan struck a bruising, if far from fatal, blow to the forces of global jihad.
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The nighttime raid was conducted by Navy SEALs operating under the guidance of the CIA from a base in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was living in a safe house in Abbottabad, less than a mile from Pakistan's Military Academy - prompting accusations Pakistani intelligence may have collaborated in his hiding.
If Americans, Israelis and most other Westerners were predictably elated to see bin Laden's demise, reactions in the Middle East were muted at first. Eventually Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and most other Arab governments welcomed bin Laden's death, and other Arab and Muslim countries soon followed suit.
Just as predictably, representatives of the Iranian-led "resistance axis" mourned the arch-terrorist's passing. The Hamas government in Gaza condemned the killing of an "Arab holy warrior" as "a continuation of the American policy of oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."
In Tehran, an official statement said the "US and their allies have no more excuse to deploy forces in the Middle East under the pretext of fighting terrorism," while Iran's intelligence chief bizarrely swore that bin Laden had died of an illness "some time ago."
In Pakistan itself the reaction was muddled. President Asif Al Zardari first praised the strike as "a great victory," but a day later, the government blasted  Washington's "unauthorized unilateral action," and warned that a similar breach of sovereignty in the future would lead to a "terrible catastrophe."
Under President Barack Obama, Washington has made al-Qaida the focus of its counterterrorism policy and claims to have killed 22 of its top 30 leaders. In 2010 US drones operating in Yemen - bin Laden's ancestral home - killed the jihadi preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, the first US citizen ever placed on a CIA target list.
Critics, however, charge that Obama has whittled down the "War on Terror" begun by his predecessor George W. Bush to a fight against al-Qaida alone.
"The death of bin Laden does not mark the end of what used to be known as the 'War on Terror,' Michael Doran, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, told The Jerusalem Post. "Radical Islam is a culture with millions of adherents.  It will morph into new forms."
Doubts over the administration's counterterrorism credentials resurfaced in mid-December after Vice President Joe Biden told Newsweek that for US forces in Afghanistan, "the Taliban per se is not our enemy." Republican presidential candidates had a field day - Mitt Romney dismissed the remark as "outrageous," while Rick Santorum tweeted, "I always say find out what Biden thinks on issues and take the opposite position.”
Biden could hardly have given them an easier card to play. While ruling Afghanistan the Taliban gave al-Qaida safe haven, and Taliban forces were responsible for thousands of attacks against coalition forces during the Afghanistan war that followed 9/11. In August 31 US Special Forces - most of them SEALs from the same unit that killed bin Laden - died when their helicopter was shot down, apparently in a firefight with the Taliban.
The 2012 US presidential election will likely be dominated by the economy, but in a tight race questions of national security - Afghanistan, al-Qaida and Iran - could prove decisive in determining whether America paints itself red or blue.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, Islamist groups are jostling to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the Arab uprisings. In Egypt the new parliament will almost certainly be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Salafi parties, and their commitment to clamp down on jihadi groups appears lukewarm at best.
Earlier this year a group calling itself al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula took credit for a number of sabotage attacks on the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline, as well as for a brazen August terrorist attack that killed eight Israelis near Eilat.
In Forbes on Thursday, Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council wrote that a group calling itself Ansar Al-Jihad has recently issued an online manifesto announcing its formation and pledging allegiance to al-Qaida's ideology of interminable war against those it views as enemies of Islam.
"Salafis and Muslim brotherhood are vying for influence in Egypt," said Michael Doran of Brookings, "raising the possibility that radical elements will see turning up the heat on Israel as an effective means of conducting politics against their rivals. Add two more factors: Iran and Syria. As pressure on them mounts they may conclude that heating up Gaza through Sinai, by using radical Islamic cutouts, would be a good regional move."
Israelis have the unfortunate distinction of being well-acquainted with terrorism, but until now al-Qaida has made little to no inroads in waging jihad against the Jewish state. The coming months and years will tell whether the long-awaited Arab Spring was little more than a thaw before a long Islamist Winter.