Bin Laden′s death could provide political boost for Obama | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 03.05.2011
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Bin Laden's death could provide political boost for Obama

The death of Osama bin Laden could further accelerate the decline of al Qaeda, a US security expert tells Deutsche Welle. It also provides a unique political opportunity for President Barack Obama.

Barack Obama

James Davis is the director of the institute for political science and professor for political science with a focus on international relations and security at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

How important is the death of bin Laden for the fight against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism?

James Davis: That's a good question that's difficult to answer with any precision. But I think it's actually quite important. I think it's important because Osama bin Laden served as a unifying figure for a disparate movement that we call al Qaeda. Perhaps it was once a more unified organization, but largely to the response of the more or less successful efforts of the global coalition against terror to disrupt the organization, the organization has morphed and changed into something much less organized and much more in keeping with a social movement.

But we know that social movements need unifying figures, need symbolic leadership and that's what Osama bin Laden provided and that's what will now be missing, at least for the time being. The open question is whether somebody can fill the shoes of bin Laden.

Most terrorist groups end without achieving their goals with some becoming part of the political process and others having their members killed or arrested. Is the death of bin Laden also a signal for the demise of al Qaeda which many analysts claim has passed its peak as far as popular support and capabilities are concerned or will the group survive the death of its founder?

I am one of those that think that group is in decline. That said, there is still a lot of potential for mischief. The movement - and I call it a movement now rather than an organization - remains global, we have seen that recently in Yemen, we have seen that in Northern and Eastern Africa, we have seen operatives in Germany that only recently were uncovered. But the sense of a unified movement seems to be in decline and in that sense I think is important that Osama bin Laden has been eliminated. Does it mean then that we can rest assured that this will be wrapped up any time soon? No, probably not.

Do you then expect terrorist attacks against US and Western targets as a response to the killing of bin Laden?

I expect a continued effort on the part of like-minded organizations to attack symbols of Western values and symbols of Western strength. And insofar as some of these groups would be upset by the killing of bin Laden, yes I would expect that there would be some intensified efforts to attack these symbols. Whether that translates into success or not if of course a function of how effective the intelligence and police services are in preventing that.

I am actually quite impressed with the ability of the intelligence and police services to thwart these plans in advance. One should be careful to say we are safe, but one should also guard against being overly anxious. Our governments have shown over the last 10 years that they have become quite adept at following these groups and stopping them.

Apparently the preparation and the operation in Pakistan were carried out in secrecy by US intelligence and special forces without informing the Pakistani government. What does this mean for the Pakistani government who has all along claimed that bin Laden wasn't in Pakistan?

That is the big unanswered question and I hope we'll hear more about this in the coming days. For me the question is how much cooperation was there in advance of this operation from the Pakistani government and then of course which parts of the Pakistani government. We know that the intelligence service seem to be of questionable loyalty and there seem to be certain aspects of the intelligence services in Pakistan that are sympathetic at least to the Taliban if not also to radicalized Islam in general.

If it was true that Osama bin Laden was camped out very close to the most prestigious military academy of Pakistan which itself is only two hours away from the capital, I find it hard to believe that nobody knew that. And then one does ask how much did the Pakistani government or elements of the government know about the location of bin Laden.

It's also interesting from the question of Pakistani domestic politics. The question here is how does the government which itself is weak and constantly at risk negotiate the terrain between on the one hand congratulating the United States on its successful operation and on the other hand convincing its population that this was not somehow a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

With the killing of bin Laden, President Obama achieved what his predecessors Bush and Clinton couldn't. How will this success play domestically in the US with the election campaign just about to get started?

Let's start from the premise that this strengthens him domestically. He has a success and he cannot be called weak on terrorism or security in general and he's achieved something his predecessors did not. One of the interesting questions is whether he can now use that to again shift the emphasis in the war in Afghanistan toward some sort of a negotiated settlement.

There are those in political circles in Washington who have been arguing for the need to include the Taliban in any sort of solution for Afghanistan and they have been suggesting that we really need to negotiate with the Taliban and with a limited set of preconditions. And the position of the administration has been shifting very slowly and slightly over a longer period of time. But there are also those that are quite against it and my understanding is that to date General Petraeus has not been particularly supportive of the notion that we need to reach out to the Taliban.

It should be possible, because the hawks, the right wingers should have a harder time criticizing him and also because he can now credibly say to the Taliban, separate yourself from al Qaeda and tell them that our problem is primarily with terrorism and not with the Taliban and to think again of a process of national reconciliation that would also lead to the withdrawal of American troops.

How will the killing of bin Laden affect the American standing in the world which has improved substantially since Obama took office?

My judgment would be this helps the US' standing. The circumstances of this are well understood and you have seen also in the Islamic world an increased unease with radical Islam and so I think the majority in the Islamic world will understand the context of this action. If it can be credibly conveyed I think it's also important that the Americans emphasize that they disposed of bin Laden in a way that is in accordance with Islamic tradition. That's who we are. And if we try to demonstrate that even our bitterest enemy is accorded some form of human dignity, I think that will resonate.

Obviously radicalized elements in the Islamic world will be upset with this action, but there's nothing we could have done to change their opinions in any case. And insofar as Obama is successful in using this to shift the debate over to ending the war in Afghanistan and to use this political capital to shift the debate on domestic arrangements in the United States, he may actually gain in public support both in the United States and around the world.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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