The American way of death.
When they finally came for him, you'd imagine it was exactly as Osama himself would have expected and feared. Two helicopter gunships suddenly swooping in, one of which swiftly crashed, continuing the image of marines as being capable of both great moments of farce and swift acts of terrifying retribution, delivering between 20 and 25 Navy Seals into what proved to a short battle. Without confirmation of how many were in the compound and whether bin Laden had much more defence than a few bodyguards and members of his own family, forty minutes seems about right for what was an operation which would have planned for little overall resistance. Most of that time was probably spent breaching the buildings themselves; if otherwise, those defending bin Laden must have held their own for at least a few minutes against overwhelming odds.
As the news came through last night that Obama was to make an unexpected announcement so late in the evening, my initial thought was it would be to tell the world that the other current thorn in the side of the West, Colonel Gaddafi, had been killed. Certainly, that bin Laden's life was ended in such close proximity to the missile strike in Tripoli that that killed Gaddafi's second-youngest son and some of his grandchildren is no mere coincidence. Instead, it's the ultimate expression of American geopolitical power, something that even Israel with its permissive attitude towards the assassination of those that threaten her can't match: the willingness to kill foreign leaders or terrorists without even the merest nod to international law, or extended justification as to why other means could not have been taken first.
For it's clear that just as the mission on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad was to kill rather than even attempt to capture, so was the strike in Libya designed to cut off the head of the Gaddafi regime. What the US decides to do about bin Laden on their own is up to them and their consciences, and for the rest of us to muse about; killing children, even those with the misfortune to be born into the Gaddafi clan under the dubious terms of a UN resolution which calls for a ceasefire is something quite different. It's worth noting that this came after a new call for just that had come from the Libyan government, immediately rejected by the rebels and the NATO alliance without so much as a glance at the details. For now, small reversals in fortune have once again emboldened the opposition, while that members of Gaddafi's clan have been killed suggests there may well be an intelligence leak from within his inner circle. Stalemate nonetheless still looks the most likely outcome.
Passing judgement both on the operation to kill bin Laden and on the notable, if small-scale celebrations which followed last night in Washington and New York is doubly difficult when sitting across the ocean from where the 9/11 attacks took place. This country may well have faced down the IRA and dealt with the 7/7 bombings, yet we can't properly understand just what feelings the events of that day stirred up and which are still playing out now. As such, as distasteful as it seemed for someone's death to be celebrated in such a way as it was outside the White House, even someone with as much blood on their hands as bin Laden, you can't really condemn it and are instead left to tolerate such a reaction.
Indeed, if there's anyone to blame for the manner in which bin Laden was to be "brought to justice", which we'll come to, then it's the Bush administration. While Obama became president promising to kill the al-Qaida leader, he was pushed into such a position by his predecessors and their policy on "enemy combatants". With Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most senior al-Qaida operative in US custody unlikely to face any sort of trial in the near future, trying to take bin Laden alive should it even have been achievable would have left the US with an unsolvable conundrum as to what to do with him. It seems almost certain that he too would have been left to rot in Guantanamo, indefinitely held with little prospect of judicial proceedings. Virtually no one in the States has criticised Obama for killing rather than attempting to seize bin Laden, with those on the right predictably congratulating the president for "pulling the trigger" rather than bringing him back alive.
Obama, it should be said, has mainly struck exactly the right tone. Getting the balance right between triumphalism, which it would have so easy to slip into, without underplaying just how significant bin Laden's death would be to those with relatives who lost their lives on 9/11 and so many others affected by the wars that followed was going to be difficult. If anything, he managed it better today than last night. While no one can claim with a straight face that this isn't a victory, even if a very belated one, there was still something troubling about how the violent death of one man was presented by Obama as a "testament to the greatness of our country" and how it was a reminder that "America can do whatever we set our mind to". From the outside, it looks like the opposite: that the greatest and most powerful superpower to have ever bestrode the planet took almost ten years to find one man and then blow his brains out looks like weakness, of a hollowness at its very centre.
Similarly, quite how the killing of bin Laden is synonymous with bringing him to justice, as opposed to being an act of vengeance, something which politicians on both sides of the US divide have said has happened, is difficult to see. Even taking into account the difficulties there would have been with trying him had he been captured alive, his death and quick disposal at sea is the sort of operation which leaves behind a bitter taste. Justice following both wars and crimes against humanity has been variable, it must be said, yet it will always be preferable to the bullet to the head. More than this, bin Laden simply didn't deserve to go down in what will be so easily be presented by jihadists as heroic circumstances. Along with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's spiritual leader, bin Laden barely took part in any actual fighting, save for a disastrous battle after the Russians had already left Afghanistan. It was the hundreds, if not thousands of others who were inspired by him who were willing to take part in the "martyrdom operations" that made his brand of takfirist jihadism so virulent and feared. Like with KSM, he wanted to die a shaheed without being prepared to practice what he preached, and he's been given his wish.
This was all part of the bin Laden myth, relentlessly stoked and mined by al-Qaida's exceptional propaganda. His image was honed until he was the equivalent of an Islamist Che Guevara, and those dedicated to the jihadist cause looked to bin Laden not just for guidance but saw him and his messages as being close to unquestionable. This was all the more remarkable for the fact that he had no religious training whatsoever, yet he issued fatwas and took on the title of sheikh regardless. His relative absence which has increased over the last few years dulled nothing of the respect in which he was held, and repeatedly underlined just how much of a second in command al-Zawahiri was, even as he answered questions posed to him on the jihadist forums in official releases from as-Sahab. The only real rival he had was the even more brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom was given the "franchise" in the country despite the differences over tactics between the groups.
All the same, and as others have pointed out, al-Qaida's influence has been waning ever since the Islamic State of Iraq's back was broken by the awakening groups in the country, and there have been no major attacks in the West linked to the original base, as opposed to the "franchises" set up in its image for a number of years. This isn't to diminish bin Laden's ultimate success: he knew there was never any possibility that his tiny group on its own could defeat America. His plan was instead to draw a response from the West through attacks like 9/11, which he believed would ultimately result in Muslims across the Middle East rising up against their rulers through their complicity with attacks on the Ummah. He got his first wish, as the continuing war in Afghanistan demonstrates; what didn't happen is any great rallying to the jihadist cause. Rather than fighting for the caliphate, the battles being waged by the Taliban and other Islamic groups are nationalist rather than internationalist. Moreover, the nascent Arab spring and the revolution in Egypt especially have shown as never before that rather than wanting the medieval, fundamentalist vision of society which al-Qaida wishes to impose, the vast majority favour democracy, even if it eventually takes on a distinct Islamist-influenced flavour.
Osama bin Laden's death is then a major setback for al-Qaida, if not for jihadism itself. His ultimate legacy could well be the inspiring of a second generation of even more brutal ideologues, ready to carry on the mantle of spectacular attacks against soft targets. For now, his closest successor is likely to be Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, already linked to multiple attacks. The first phase in what will almost certainly be a long conflict against the ideology of takfirist jihadism may now be over, but there are many others already fighting just waiting for the opportunity to carry on what al-Qaida and bin Laden began.