Shed no tears for Osama Bin Laden

George W Bush warned Bin Laden: “You can run, but you can’t hide.” The reality was different.

Let's not weep for him. Construct elaborate conspiracy theories around him. Pretend there is some moral ambiguity to the manner of his passing.

Osama Bin Laden was not, as the Hamas leadership tellingly tried to claim, a "Holy Warrior". He was a murderer and a mercenary, an atrocity for hire.

Nor was yesterday a day when, according to Stop the War, "The US and Britain should remind themselves of the grievances which Bin Laden claimed in 2001." It was a day for remembering the thousands who died in the 11 September attacks, and the grotesque global slaughter that followed.

"This hasn't made us any safer," will become the refrain over the days to come. True enough. Bin Laden's profile made him an operational liability. And al-Qaeda is so structurally diffuse that it is now a concept, rather than a cohesive organisation.

But yesterday was not about security. It was about justice.

I have no personal link to 9/11. I know no one who was in the twin towers, on on United 93, or in the Pentagon. But I visited New York about six weeks after the attack and walked around Ground Zero.

It looked like a giant building site, unremarkable except for the images of the missing that were posted on the exterior fencing. Normal life had resumed. The yellow cabs were passing, the hot-dog vendors doing brisk trade. The office workers were already rushing by without a second glance.

But death was standing beside me on the side walk: it was palpable. An act of indescribable violence had scarred that place, and even if you hadn't any context of time or location you would have sensed it.

Bin Laden was the perpetrator. We need no court appearance to confirm that fact. He confessed himself.

Actually he didn't confess. No orange jumpsuits or prison dogs or waterboarding were needed to loosen his tongue.

He boasted about it. Videoed himself exulting in the massacre. And distributed it, like a promo tape, for broadcast in prime time.

There are some who question his killing rather than his capture. Reports of the Navy Seal insertion team being greeted with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire hold the answer. From everything we know about Bin Laden, this was not a man inclined to throw up his hands and say, "It's a fair cop, guv."

I do have a passing regret he wasn't seized and placed on trial. It's been argued that this would have been a process fraught with complexity. It would have given him a platform and further boosted his status as challenger of western imperialist oppression.

I think it would have had the opposite effect. Demythologised him. Made him real and human and ordinary. As with Eichmann in Jerusalem, the world would again have borne witness to the banality of evil.

But these are details, not issues of great substance. Yes, perhaps there was something slightly tasteless about the scenes of celebration that marked his demise. But flying an airliner packed with innocent men, women and children into the side of a skyscraper is pretty tasteless, too.

It's a trite phrase, but no less true because of it: the world is a better place. Every global despot and dictator is looking over his shoulder. The good old days when they could place entire populations between themselves and an international reckoning are over. Or they fear they are, which, for the moment at least, will suffice.

And why yesterday was not the best day for the Independent to run the headline "Targeted assassinations are a strategic mistake".

The political dynamics of the globe's sole, if ageing, superpower have also shifted. It's not that the incumbent president is now a certainty for re-election in 2012; that Donald Trump was being seriously discussed as a potential challenger proved it was never in doubt. But the settled wisdom that Republicans are strong on national security and Democrats weak has been turned on its head.

George W Bush warned Bin Laden, "You can run, but you can't hide." But the fact was that he could run from Bush, but he couldn't hide from Barack Obama.

And what of basic humanity? A fellow human being is dead, a life silenced for ever. Surely that should give pause?

No. True humanity should not give pause. Compassion, empathy and understanding demand only one response: that we recall those who fell at Bin Laden's command. Empathise with those who were left behind. And understand the reaction of those who rejoice in the closure his own death brings.

In truth there will be no closure. The families will always mourn. The images of that crisp, clear day will always be with us. The war it unleashed, in reality just another battle in a war we have been fighting for centuries, will continue.

But Osama Bin Laden has passed into history. We need shed no tears over that.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496