More surprising than the death of Osama bin Laden on Monday was the fact that
he lived unmolested in a mansion in Abbottabad, about 65 kilometers north of
the Pakistani capital Islamabad. How many Pakistani officials and others must
have known about this? "America can do whatever we set out mind to," President
Barack Obama intoned in his May 1 announcement of Bin Laden's death at the
hands during a strike by Pakistani and American special forces.
Not, apparently, without a little help from its friends, and remarkably belated
help at that.
Normally I do not speculate on operational matters; to solicit information on
secret matters even from very good sources is like telling Pinocchio, "Lie to
me." Some considerations here are
obvious, though, even without the usual disinformation. It is hard to conclude
otherwise that Bin Laden died this week because people who knew his whereabouts
chose this particular moment to inform the US authorities. What has changed?
The simple answer is: everything has changed. Instability in the Muslim world
has reached a level that makes Bin Laden redundant.
The overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the near-overthrow of
Yemini President Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with the eruption of instability
across the whole of the Arab world, changed al-Qaeda's position. From Riyadh's
vantage point, Bin Laden was a loose cannon and an annoyance, but no threat to
the strategic position of Saudi Arabia.
The royal family preferred to allow some of its more radically-inclined members
to provide support to Bin Laden on a covert basis in return for al-Qaeda's de
facto agreement to leave the Arabian Peninsula in peace. As a WikiLeaks cable
revealed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a secret December 2009
memo, "More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial
support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Toiba] and other
With the destabilization of Yemen, that sort of modus vivendi became
obsolete. As the terse diplomatic announcements of Defense Secretary Robert
Gates' April 6 conversation with King Abdullah made clear, the Saudis were
deeply concerned about the destabilization of Yemen by al-Qaeda along with
In the slow-burning civil war in Yemen - a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran
- al-Qaeda acted as an Iranian ally. This was an annoyance to the Saudis as
long as the Saudi-allied regime remained intact. The near collapse of Saleh's
regime, though, threatens to give Iran an additional foothold on the Saudi
Although Bin Laden himself is Sunni, al-Qaeda's closest state relationship
almost certainly is with Iran. Among the would-be bombers arrested in Germany
last week were Iranian nationals, apparently collaborating in an al-Qaeda
operation. That is not new. America's bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded that
Iran had opened its border to al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan no later than
In short, while al-Qaeda had drawn funding from both Saudi and Iranian sources,
in present circumstances its activity tended to serve Iranian rather than Saudi
interests. Support for terrorism, moreover, is a two-way street: precisely
because Saudi Arabia was "a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda",
Saudi intelligence knows something about the recipients of their money.
The Saudis, moreover, have an interest in cleaning up the terrorist
associations of the Pakistani military. As the Saudi cold war with Iran grows
increasingly hot, Riyadh may look towards Islamabad for military support. Asia
Times Online has reported that the Bahrain National Guard already is recruiting
Pakistani mercenaries. (See
Pakistan ready for Middle East role, April 2.)
And there is speculation that Saudi Arabia in a pinch might ask for Pakistani
troops, and also that Riyadh might source nuclear weapons technology from
Pakistan to counter Iran's nuclear program. Where else might the Saudis go for
support in a war with Iran? The Saudis cannot trust the United States. King
Abdullah reportedly was enraged that Obama pulled the rug out from under
Mubarak, a longstanding American ally. And they cannot trust the Turks, who
have become the region's spoiler.
Pakistan's military capacity and urgent need for money make it the Sunni power
most amenable to Saudi interests. That is one more reason to clear the deck of
unreliable elements like Bin Laden.
Ironically, Bin Laden appears to be a casualty in the great Arab breakdown of
2011. We can only guess as to the details of his demise, and may never know the
entire truth. But it is a fair conclusion that he was crushed between the
tectonic plates now shifting in the Muslim world.
That makes American self-congratulation over the killing a bit unseemly.
American special forces may have been the proximate cause of Bin Laden's
violent death, but the efficient cause is a great strategic upheaval that
America does not yet understand, and is not prepared to respond to.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in
Spengler's Expat Bar
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