Courier Mail: Death will rally faithful

Death will rally faithful

FAMILIAR TERRITORY: Journalist Michael Ware covering the conflict in Iraq. Source: Supplied

BARACK Obama and his agency chiefs could not have scripted the killing of Osama bin Laden better if they had tried.

In a daring, breathtaking and clinically lethal operation they cut him down right where he lived.

The raid makes the passing of a long, bloody decade of war since 9/11. It comes as the great price of treasure and blood - around 6000 US combat deaths and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths - continues to be paid.

But in August last year US intelligence finally unearthed the lead they had been so desperately seeking. It allowed them to track and hunt down the masterfully elusive al-Qa'ida leader in a plush Pakistani mansion.

From a base in wartorn Afghanistan, the US President unleashed a strike force of elite Navy SEALs, teams most certainly filled with the kind of hardened warriors I've come to know in America's wars. At night the airborne assault choppered across Pakistan's badlands, al-Qa'ida and the Taliban's heartland.

The team landed in Abbottabad, 100km outside of the capital Islamabad, deep in to Pakistani soil. Neither the Pakistani government nor its intelligence agencies long known for their ongoing lines of communication with Islamic militant groups killing American, British and Australian troops knew American boots were setting foot on their soil. That alone is, at least publicly, a first since the wars began.

Storming in to the multi-layered luxury compound where Osama was hiding, the SEALs gave him the chance to surrender. When he refused, they blew him away with shots to the head. And at last, the al-Qa'ida inspiration for the 9/11 attacks lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

President Obama could not have done it better. But, then again, neither could have al-Qa'ida.

For hardline Islamic militants continuing the "holy war", or jihad, Osama bin Laden inflamed, he will forever now be revered as a martyr. Osama was not, unlike others in his command, slain with the anonymity of drone missile strikes or, even worse, like Iraq's secular former dictator Saddam Hussein (who had no connection to bin Laden at all) captured in disgrace and paraded by America for all to see.

No. Bin Laden, or so will go the jihadi lore, went down in a blaze of defiant glory. Dying as he lived. Fighting the infidels of America to bitter end. Eschewing surrender and choosing, on his own terms, his martyrdom.

It is dark reality that his death with inevitability be a rallying point. And in death he may be as valuable a symbol to al-Qa'ida as he was in life.

I know this because, to some extent and far more than perhaps I would have liked, I know al-Qa'ida. In Iraq in 2004 I was taken to one of their training camps.

Months later I was kidnapped by frenzied al-Qa'ida fighters who readied me for execution beneath one of their banners. The man who was to sever my head from body beside me, eager in anticipation. My execution to be filmed on my own camera.

Too many times I have seen in to their eyes, witnessed their work, been taken inside their disciplined and brutishly effective organisation.

So trust me, at enormous price that I and my family have and to this day still pay, I know.

At their training camp in an Iraqi village their combat schools were invisible from the air or to an uninitiated eye. Mortar schools were conducted in one house. Sniper training in a barn. Infantry skills in a mosque. And so on.

Even Iraqi insurgents, who had fought and killed in battles with well-trained American forces, feared them. "These al-Qa'ida leaders," said one top insurgent commander, "they don't even trust their own clothes. You never know what they're thinking, from one moment to the next. To be honest, they scare even me."

But when I hinted yesterday on television, within hours of his death, how al-Qa'ida may write the tale of Osama's death a twit here in Australia Twittered I "sounded like an apologist for bin Laden during the 4.30 news". It's dull thinking like that, in the past, that hampered Western efforts to delve deep enough in to al-Qa'ida to find the leader they killed yesterday.

An unpalatable reality we must prepare for is that an enduring legacy of bin Laden's life may yet prove to be the manner of his death.

Make no mistake, his slaying is without a doubt a heavy symbolic body blow to the al-Qa'ida organisation. But when it comes to its ability to continue waging its campaign of attacks and terror that's all it promises to be. Symbolic.

No-one in the Pentagon or at the CIA's Virginia headquarters expects it to be anything more.

For al-Qa'ida is an organisation built for loss. It's remarkable ability to regenerate is tested and well-proven. In these years of war its lost footsoldiers, bombmakers, facilitators, mid-ranking leaders and some of its highest-ranking strategic chiefs. And yet it has not laid down. In fact, it continues to evolve.

Its strength has never been in its numbers, but in its vision and its ideas. It has "franchised" its particular brand of Islamic war and spread it far. It has encouraged leaders to emerge, poles of charisma and attraction for young recruits and the money seeking to support it, and for its "branches" to flourish. Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsular, based primarily in Yemen, an example of its gnarliest and most formidable outfits. That group's best publicised plot of late was thwarted only when it was already under way in a bid to send bombs once again to the United States.

The shockwaves reverberating out from bin Laden's death - those of unfettered jubilation in the US with chants of "USA, USA" and those elsewhere in the world - go far beyond questions over the next generation of al-Qa'ida leaders.

That bin Laden was cornered where he was, not only in Pakistan but so deep inside its sovereign soil and so much beyond the wild frontier provinces, has implications yet to ripple out. And those ripples, like quake-sparked tsunamis in the ocean, must be watched with attentive eyes.

That Pakistan's intelligence apparatus, an American and, for that matter, an Australian "ally", had not detected or revealed bin Laden's presence in such a populous city so closely tied to the nation's military raises a plethora of difficult questions.

In July 2009 a two-star Pakistani general, the spokesman for the country's intelligence agency, went on camera with me to say the agency, while not supporting the militants in any way, maintained contact with the Afghan Taliban and other highly-targeted groups killing Americans. Such is the role of spy agencies, even the CIA acknowledges that.

But to have bin Laden so close and not to have known? Or worse, to not have told? Therein lies the rub.

A former director of that Pakistani agency, and a friend of mine, is widely credited with creating the Taliban. The general is now long "retired" and living not far from the capital. When I last met him, at his house in Pakistan, his son an urbane, sophisticated, extremely likeable English speaker of great education told me of his days fighting Russians literally alongside bin Laden.

Are these ties of the kind that bind? Bin Laden's death brings these things, and so much, once again in to stark relief. Even for Australia.

With our troops in contact in Afghanistan's rugged Uruzgan province, a hard piece of land, bin Laden's death will do nothing to make our diggers safer. Nor will it accelerate their coming home. The war we are fighting in that far off land has had little, if anything, to do with Osama bin Laden.

Certainly, it's had no bearing on the hunt to kill or capture him. There we fight Afghan Taliban, led by the cleric Mullah Omar. And the Taliban's cause, and its capacity to wage war, drew nothing from bin Laden.

But our men and women will continue to fight with honour and bravery, of the kind that President Obama so justly attributed to the SEALs who killed bin Laden.

Those men, said the president, displayed "extraordinary courage and ability". He's right. I've known many Navy SEALs. I can tell you those battle-hardened SEALs who entered Osama's compound did so also with a particular kind of relish, eagerly embracing the chance to confront bin Laden.

But it's with a heavy heart that I suspect we are still going to need those men with the courage and the relish to confront al-Qa'ida because its story is far from over.
Michael Ware previously worked for The Courier-Mail