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Importance Of Bin Laden's Death May Lie In Its Symbolism

The loss of Osama bin Laden (left, with deputy Ayman al-Zawahri at a hideout in Afghanistan in November 2001) is likely to be felt more in recruitment than any sort of practical sense.
The loss of Osama bin Laden (left, with deputy Ayman al-Zawahri at a hideout in Afghanistan in November 2001) is likely to be felt more in recruitment than any sort of practical sense.
The commander in chief's words demanded a settling of accounts that would be as simple as it was final: "I want justice. There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted -- dead or alive.'"

Now, after almost a decade, those words -- spoken by President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001 -- no longer ring hollow, even if deliverance only finally arrived on the watch of his successor, Barack Obama.

Arguably, too, bin Laden might have been of greater value -- at least as an intelligence asset -- had he been brought to book still in the land of the living rather than as a corpse.

Yet there can be no doubt of the significance of the reckoning that befell the Al-Qaeda leader at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in what appeared to be a custom-built and heavily protected compound in the town of Abbottabad, near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

For the relatives of the nearly 3,000 victims killed in the attacks on New York and Washington, bin Laden's suitably violent end brings a form of closure -- or justice, as Bush would have it.

That feeling was summed up by Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, the airliner that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after the passengers tried to overcome the hijackers.

"This is important news for us and for the world," he said. "It cannot ease our pain or bring back our loved ones. It does bring a measure of comfort that the mastermind of the September 11 tragedy and the face of global terror can no longer spread his evil."

Announcing the news to an international audience late on the evening of May 1, Obama also invoked justice and redemption and said bin Laden's killing demonstrated the United States' ability to combat Al-Qaeda's threat.

"As a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed," Obama said. "We will be true to the values that make us who were are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to Al-Qaeda's terror, justice has been done."

WATCH: Osama bin Laden made a 30-year career of Islamic extremism, from backing the Afghan mujahedin to masterminding a string of attacks on U.S. interests.

Osama Bin Laden: A History Of Violence
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Important Figurehead

Yet as a blow against what Al-Qaeda represented, the killing of its putative leader almost certainly carries more symbolic, rather than practical, value.

For the latest on the bin Laden story, follow RFE/RL's Pakistani and Afghan journalists on Twitter at @GandharaRFE

In the decade since the September 11 attacks, the jihadist movement had become widely dispersed in countries like Yemen, Algeria, and Iraq, where militant adherents have been operating as virtual franchises independent of the main Al-Qaeda leadership.

Amid this decentralization and the killing and arrests of other senior commanders by U.S. and allied forces, bin Laden had become a marginalized figure living in a "retirement phase" with little or no involvement in current Al-Qaeda operations, according to professor Paul Rogers of the Institute of Peace Studies at Bradford University in Britain.

Important figurehead as he was, Rogers argues, his death hardly represents a turning point.

"It probably isn't a key moment in the war [on terror] overall. It's hugely significant for the United States, obviously, and there will be considerable rejoicing, especially in New York," Rogers says. "But the reality is that bin Laden was a figurehead but was not hugely significant in a movement which has in any case been very considerably dispersed."

Terrorist attacks, such as this one at a cafe in Marrakech on April 28, will not go away.
Taking the argument further, that dispersal may mean the death of bin Laden "is not going to solve the problem" of future terror attacks. Rogers cites the deadly bombing of a cafe in the Moroccan city of Marrakech on April 29 as an example of how "this movement has morphed into lots of smaller groups." Others are active in Yemen and possibly in North Africa.

"So this is not something that is very narrow and very structured. We are dealing with a much wider problem," Rogers notes. "While this has been hugely welcomed in the United States -- justifiably so -- it does not indicate that this conflict between the more jihadist Islamists and countries such as the United States is over. Far from it, in many ways."

End Of The Mystique

Yet the psychological blow to jihadists operating under the Al-Qaeda umbrella of losing their totemic leader should not be underestimated, according to Maha Azzam, associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

"I think it is a very major blow symbolically," Azzam insists. "It has been some time now since we have been able to speak really of a single organization. You've had cells and affiliates of Al-Qaeda working from different parts of the world. However, the killing of Osama bin Laden is certainly a major blow to a movement in whatever form that laid a great deal of emphasis on Osama bin Laden as a key figure in its recruitment of people."

The removal of such a high-profile individual raises the question of who will be his replacement. The focus may now shift to his much less charismatic deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian former pediatrician who is seen as one of the movement's ideological stalwarts.

Bin Laden will no longer mock the West from hiding.
But whoever fills the vacuum, an irreplaceable mystique is likely to attach itself to the man who gained global notoriety for his video messages, purportedly filmed in mountain caves in the tribal areas of Afghanistan, that mocked and threatened the United States and its allies.

Indeed, Rogers says, the fact that bin Laden met his end in a very different setting -- in a suburban town known for its proximity to the Pakistani armed forces -- is likely to prompt awkward questions about his connections to that country's security establishment and about the U.S. alliance with Pakistan that may puncture the initial euphoria over his death.

"If this had been bin Laden discovered in a cave in North or South Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan, that would have been one thing," Rogers argues. "The fact that he was actually killed in what's basically a garrison town of the Pakistani Army does put a very different complexion on it and raises a whole range of issues in terms of what was known within Pakistan.

"While this is hugely welcomed in the United States, there's a lot more to it than meets the eye initially, and it does indicate that there are real complexities here in relation to U.S.-Pakistan relations."

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