Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Osama bin Laden had to die

Given his role in the killing of thousands of innocent people, it is remarkable that the death of Osama bin Laden, at the hands of American Special Forces at his Abbottabad hideaway, is generating so much heat. Some of the angst is natural, coming as it does from his relatives and supporters. In other instances, terrorism experts and commentators have debated whether the killing would impact on the Al Qaeda’s operations, and some have argued that it would a) make little difference and b) lead to a resurgence of terrorism.
Not surprisingly, some in Europe and the US have questioned the legality and the ethics of his killing. He was killed on the orders of the American president by breaching the sovereignty of a friendly state, and this was done without any pretence of due process. On the other hand, there is the morality of killing an unarmed man, even though he was a dreaded terrorist. The EU, many of whose member countries are fighting the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan,  indulged in some verbal contortions. European Commission president Manuel Barroso initially welcomed his death as a “major achievement” but later a spokesperson clarified that the EU did not think that his death was an “execution” calling into question Europe's opposition to the death penalty. But in a subsequent statement, the EU commission was less ambiguous, noting that bin Laden had been punished for the crime of killing thousands of innocents.
Of course, as of now we do not know enough of the circumstances of his killing. There have been multiple narratives. Initially we heard about a human shield, then about a woman who was injured trying to protect him. And all this must have happened in the pitch dark, with only the Seals with their night vision equipment knowing what was really happening. Neither do we know the exact text of the order that the US president gave to the Seals. Nevertheless, the consensus, barring bin Laden’s die-hard supporters, seems to be that the death was a welcome event and rid the world of a bad man, legality and ethics be damned.
The dilemma of the US in dealing with terrorists is palpable. They have, over the years captured hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives, including people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah,  Saif al Islam al Masry and Ramzi Binalshib. But even years after capturing and waterboarding some of them, they have not been able to proceed with their trials. The debate within the US as to whether they should be tried by military tribunals or the normal courts of law has been a wrenching one and is not quite concluded. 

Dealing with terrorists has always been a bit of a confounding affair for those who promote the concept of the rule of law and due process. The Indian experience with terrorism has, in that sense, been a learning process. In the 1980s, the government sought to try a number of terrorists it had arrested in Punjab through special courts which were permitted to function from the jails where these people were held. But the process opened up the judges, prosecutors, police and witnesses to threats by terrorists. After a vicious campaign that targeted the wives and children of police personnel, the Punjab police decided that they would simply kill the terrorists they captured. Indeed, so systematic was the policy that some of the terrorists who had been captured prior to the institution of the policy mysteriously “escaped” from their jails and were never to be heard of again.
Masood Azhar
But the real lesson came from the episode that culminated in the hijack of the IC814 to Kandahar in December 1999. The story began with the capture in February 1994 of Masood Azhar, the Harkat ul Mujahideen ideologue who had been sent to India to effect the unification of the HuM with the Harkat Jehad-e-Islami into a new outfit called the Harkat ul Ansar. Azhar had close ties with the patrons of the outfit, people like Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, the rector of the Binori masjid in Karachi, a fountainhead of Islamist radicalism.
So, extraordinary efforts were made to secure his release. The first attempt was to trade off Azhar, Sajjad Afghani and Nasrullah Langaryal with a captured major of the General Reserve Engineering Force and a BSF constable. When the government refused the terms, the two were executed.  Then came the June 1994 kidnapping of Kim Houesgo, the son of a British journalist who had been trekking in Pahalgam. The boy was let go because of local pressure, in part generated by Qazi Nisar, a religious leader of Anantnag.  Nisar paid the price for his “interference” because he was killed subsequently.
Then, in October 1994, in an incident long forgotten by Delhiites, five foreign backpackers were kidnapped from various guest houses in Paharganj, and held captive in the Ghaziabad area by Ahmad Sayeed Omar Sheikh, a British Pakistani and a graduate of the London School of Economics. By chance the kidnapping went awry and the hostages were rescued through a brave operation by the local police. Sheikh was injured in the shootout and captured. The demand of the kidnappers was the release of Azhar, Langaryal, Afghani and several Kashmiri militants.
The next year, six foreigners were kidnapped by a cover outfit of the Harkat ul Ansar called the Al Faran, again from the Pahalgam area. This episode did not turn out well; while one, an American, escaped and another, a Norwegian was beheaded, the others have not been heard of since. The government again refused to accede to the release of Masood Azhar and his associates.
Four years later, came the culmination with the hijacking of the IC814 which was traveling from Kathmandu to Delhi in December 1999. It was taken to Kandahar and the government of India was compelled to release Azhar, Sheikh and a Kashmiri militant Mushtaq Zargar. Both Azhar and Sheikh went on to commit other infamous acts thereafter. Sheikh was involved in the killing of Daniel Pearl and may have been part of the Nine Eleven plot. Azhar set up a new and more virulent outfit called Jaish-e-Muhammad which was probably involved in the attack on the Parliament House in December 2001.
Not a few at the time of Kandahar, and even now feel that had the two terrorists been killed rather than arrested, it would have saved a lot of lives and anguish.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, therefore, has to be seen in a pragmatic, rather than in an ethical or legal light. Had bin Laden actually been captured, you can be sure that there would have been an endless and escalatory series of events aimed at freeing him. In any event, it must be said that Islamic jurisprudence would have little to say about the manner of his death, considering that under Shariat law the basic principle is an eye for eye and a tooth for tooth. Viewed through that matrix, the full accounting for bin Laden’s crimes is yet to take place.
Mail Today May 19, 2011

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