When former U.S. President Bill Clinton unleashed a missile strike on an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in August 1998, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Pakistan. They chanted "death to America" and "long live Osama."
The attack, and the fact that Osama bin Laden just managed to survive it, boosted the Al-Qaeda leader's image as a so-called "hero of Islam" both in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
The attacks on September 11, 2001, triggered another series of protests aimed at U.S. and NATO strikes against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. A few weeks after that, bin Laden again achieved hero status when he escaped the Tora Bora operation, losing dozens of his hard-core Arab fighters along the way.
This time around the situation looks strikingly different. To be sure, anti-Americanism still abounds in the Pakistani media -- particularly in the local Urdu-language newspapers and private television channels. Yet so far no prominent political leader or major political or religious party has called for protests against bin Laden's killing by U.S. forces on May 2 in the city of Abbottabad, in a compound located directly next to the prestigious Kakul Military Academy.
This apathy -- even as anti-American sentiment runs wild among many members of the Pakistani elite -- suggests that the focus of Pakistani public opinion may be shifting, above all among the masses of ordinary Pakistanis who have born the brunt of years of terrorist attacks.
Changing Public Mood
The Pakistani public, though by no means enthusiastic about the U.S. action in Abbottabad, seems to have lost its taste for the jihadi ideology that has evolved over the years in the course of the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan and the Indians in Kashmir. The once-palpable enthusiasm for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has diminished after waves of suicide attacks on cities, mosques, schools, markets, and other public and private places.
In a shrewd assessment of the public mood, the religious parties, always searching for excuses to bring the people into the streets, have opted to remain silent on the killing of bin Laden, once a hero for most of them.
To save face, some leaders have put out the usual strange conspiracy theories. So, for example, Mufti Kifayatullah, a provincial lawmaker of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F), has declared that "Osama bin Laden was captured somewhere else and was brought to Abbottabad to that house and was martyred there." When reporters from RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal asked why Abbottabad was selected for the killing, the religious party leader replied: "The U.S. wants to start drone strikes in Abbottabad just as it is doing in FATA," the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border.
The leadership of the Jamat-e Islami, known for its anti-American rhetoric and street power, has kept virtually mum -- just like their colleagues in the JUI-F, who never lose a chance to malign the government and its moderate rivals in the name of jihad, Islam, and Shari'a.
At the same time, the moderate political forces, such as the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party, have also opted to forego comment despite their evident satisfaction with bin Laden's death. Perhaps they are waiting to see the army's reaction, just as they did before joining the chorus that followed the condemnation of the March 16 drone strike by the chief of the Pakistan Army, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
Bashir Ahmad Bilour, senior minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, is the only political leader who has openly welcomed the killing of bin Laden, whom he has declared to be a symbol of terrorism. "He was the killer of our children, our mothers; he provided suicide vests to our young people, and he must meet the same fate," Bilour told Radio Mashaal.
Public Rejection Of Jihadists
Joining the flood of conspiracy theories surrounding the killing of bin Laden, one Pakistani newspaper reported that bin Laden had died of kidney disease in the Swat Valley in June 2006.
A private television channel aired a flash news report that the Saudi billionaire holds a Pakistani national identity card. Meanwhile, a prominent television talk shows host claimed that bin Laden was captured in Afghanistan and brought to Pakistan, where he was killed.
Aside from the conspiracy theories and hearsay, the unexpected silence of the religious parties and public points to a change in the popular mood. The people of Pakistan seem to be fed up with Taliban and Al-Qaeda violence both in and out of the country. The same people have already rejected the religious and political parties on several occasions in the recent past, including the Safia Siddiqi case, the Raymond Davis release, and the drone strikes.
The immediate impact of bin Laden's killing will be to demoralize the militants. In the longer run, we might see some fragmentation of Al-Qaeda, something like what happened with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, which split into four groups after the killing of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud. Yet far more important, as the relative lack of reaction on the streets demonstrates, is the deepening disenchantment of ordinary Pakistanis with jihadi ideology. This, in turn, will lead to a decline in sympathy with militant organizations and the pro-Taliban religious parties. And that can only be for the good.
Daud Khattak is acting director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL