10 years after his death, bin Laden still haunts Pakistan
Abbottabad (Pakistan) (AFP)
Children play cricket in a patch of scorched grass and scattered rubble in Abbottabad – all that remains of the last lair of the man who was once the most wanted person on the planet.
It is in this Pakistani city that Osama bin Laden was killed during the clandestine raid of “Operation Geronimo” by the US Navy Seals in the early hours of May 2, 2011.
The operation had global repercussions and damaged Pakistan’s international reputation – revealing contradictions in a country that had long served as a rear base for Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies while suffering the effects of terrorism.
Bin Laden had been living in isolation for at least five years in Abbottabad, hidden behind the high walls of an imposing white building less than two kilometers from a renowned military academy.
“It was a very bad thing for this place and for the whole country,” said Altaf Hussain, a retired schoolteacher, walking down an alley next to Bin Laden’s former residence.
“By living here, Osama gave this city a bad reputation.”
The raid caught Pakistan between a rock and a hard place.
Officials could deny knowing he was there – but in doing so, they would effectively be admitting a shocking intelligence flaw.
They could also have admitted that the world’s most infamous fugitive was under their protection, but that would concede their powerlessness to prevent Washington from carrying out such a daring raid on sovereign soil.
– “ People called their children Osama ” –
They opted for the former, but the US operation reinforced an already strong anti-American sentiment among a population tired of the heavy financial and human toll paid for the war on terror – and Islamabad’s alliance with Washington after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Pakistan was initially receptive to the founding myth of Al Qaeda – the resistance of Muslims to US imperialism.
But by the time of his death, bin Laden’s local popularity had waned.
“Before, I remember people calling their children Osama, even in my village,” said Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, a specialist in jihadist networks.
Bin Laden’s death did not stop extremism from spreading in Pakistan, and conservative religious movements have become even more influential.
Over the next three years, several terrorist groups – foremost the Pakistani Taliban – carried out bloody attacks and established strongholds in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
A military campaign launched in 2014 helped reduce violence, although a recent spate of minor attacks has raised fears of a regrouping of extremists.
– “ Some say it was good ” –
Without its charismatic leader, Al Qaeda “survived, but barely” and is no longer able to launch major attacks in the West, says Yusufzai.
The group is also no longer “a great threat to Pakistan,” said Hamid Mir – the last journalist to interview bin Laden face-to-face – although other groups like the Islamic State remain so.
He said that while the founder of Al Qaeda is still considered a “freedom fighter” by some, many also recognize him as “a bad person who killed innocent people and caused destruction – not only in Pakistan, but in many countries, in violation of the teachings of Islam “.
Bin Laden nevertheless retains an aura in radical circles.
“He lives in the heart of every Taliban and every jihadist,” said Saad, an Afghan Taliban official living in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, in the northwest of the country.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan caused a scandal two years ago when he told parliament that bin Laden had died as a “martyr” – a noble disappearance in the Islamic world.
Even in Abbottabad, a prosperous and largely tolerant mid-size city, ambiguity reigns over Bin Laden, whose house was razed in 2012 by authorities so that it does not become a memorial.
“In this street, there are differences of opinion,” explains ex-teenage neighbor Numan Hattak.
“Some say he was good, some say he was bad.”
© 2021 AFP