US persistence in ending the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden may reverse a long-held perception in Europe that America is in decline – both in terms of its soft power as well as its military clout.
The news about the US attack on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Mr. bin Laden comes after a season of Arab uprisings that are largely democratic in sentiment, received support from US and European leaders, and appeared to take place without Islamist or Al Qaeda backing. To some analysts, it holds out hope for the end of a chapter of global violent jihad started by bin Laden in the 1990s – and may enhance a larger swing toward sympathy with democratic values and a larger antipathy toward extremism.
“Seen from Europe, this is part of the return of America. The story a few years ago was America’s relative decline, but this shows a return,” argues Dominique Moisi, a leading intellectual at the French Institute of International Relations. “We see that democracy prevails as an aspiration and democracy prevails as a force. The way bin Laden was disposed of, not by a drone or a missile … that makes a difference.”
IN PICTURES: Osama bin Laden death: reaction
While bin Laden’s call for global jihad, exemplified in attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, led to a “global war on terror,” the Saudi sheikh’s support among European Muslims was minimal at best. Many are quietly glad he is gone.
“Bin Laden did not have a real following [in Europe], and [his killing] won’t make any real difference directly,” says Christophe Jaffrelot, a South Asian specialist in Paris. “Indirectly, we will have to see if in North Africa or Egypt he is made a martyr. That could have some aftershocks … but I don’t see any waves of sympathy for bin Laden among Muslims here.”
Nor is it lost on Europeans that the successful bin Laden operation, in which his son was killed, comes only a day after a missile strike in Tripoli reportedly killed a son of Muammar Gaddafi and three grandchildren.
End of an era
"It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” says Karim Emile Bitar. “The new chapter has opened with the Arab spring. Bin Laden was silent about and caught off guard by this spring, and he had very little popularity in the Arab world.”
British and French foreign secretaries warned today that Al Qaeda remains a threat. European embassies were put on high alert as news of the raid and killing broke here.
Still, British Tunisian expert Abdel Darwish agrees that “it has not been a good year for Al Qaeda." The Arab uprisings were a fairly direct call for “a Western or even American way of life” by ordinary people, he told the BBC today.
Both British and French leaders used adaptations of the “war on terrorism” framing of the issue – which, for the most part, had been dropped in Europe after the outset of the unpopular Iraq war here.
Bin Laden’s death is "a major event in the worldwide fight against terrorism,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “Bin Laden was the promoter of an ideology of hatred and head of a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of victims … notably in Muslim countries…. For these victims, justice is done.”
Europe's muted response
However, unlike in the US, where Americans gathered in ball parks, in Times Square, and in front of the White House for spontaneous and patriotic celebrations over the end of the FBI’s No. 1 “Most Wanted” man – Europeans have not expressed a similarly emotional response.
“No one here can understand the demonstrations of jumping outside the White House,” says Mr. Jaffrelot, who adds that “It is not our mind set. We didn’t experience the trauma [of 9/11] in the same way as Americans.”
In London and in Paris, where on Tuesday Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is scheduled to visit on a trade and energy cooperation mission, there is significant interest as to why Pakistani authorities did not know or reveal more about bin Laden’s compound, a $1 million structure of walls and barbed wire located about a half-mile from a military center whose rector is the Pakistani Army chief of staff, according to Farzana Shaikh of Chatham House in London.
US military authorities did not advise or consult Pakistan on the operation against bin Laden, which is being seen as a precaution against a possible tipoff. “I hope France engages Mr. Gilani on what ... Pakistan has been doing for the last 10 years,” said one French source. “Really.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters today about the proximity of bin Laden’s compound both to the military school, and to the capital Islamabad. He said that “the government of Pakistan will want to comment on that in due course.”
In Paris, Alain Frachon, editor of Le Monde, France's newspaper of record, linked bin Laden's death with the birth of an “Arab spring,” arguing online that “these events, which for the past six months overwhelmed the Arab world, spelled the end of the pull of radical Islam – the jihadism of bin Laden. That [Arab spring] revolt was carried out in the name of democracy and freedom, and not in the name of political Islam, of jihad, of hatred for the West, of hatred for "Crusaders and Jews," all themes dear to bin Laden.”
“None of that rebellion’s spokesmen, in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus or in Benghazi, claimed loyalty to bin Laden or Al Qaeda," he asserted. "On the contrary ... it seems that bin Laden was already politically dead before the US operation that cost him his life in Pakistan.”