By Rob Macaire
It is poignant to be sitting in Nairobi as the news of Bin Laden’s death sweeps the world. It was here and in Dar es Salaam that the mass-casualty attacks by the organisation loosely known as Al Qaeda first hit the world.
All the hallmarks of subsequent attacks were apparent in those twin bombings of US Embassies here and in Dar in August 1998. The willingness to cause maximum civilian casualties; the indiscriminate targeting that killed people of all faiths and beliefs (most Al Qaeda attacks since then have been in Muslim-majority countries); the attempt to set communities and nations against each other. And the callousness of Bin Laden and the other commanders who push people into suicide attacks while they themselves remain in the background.
The death of Osama Bin Laden marks a further decline in the relevance of Al Qaeda’s message. After more than a decade of attacks around the world, a lot of people who were previously sympathetic to this ideology have recognised how little such violence achieves. And the ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa and the Middle East has shown how huge numbers of ordinary people prefer other, peaceful, methods of seeking to change their world.
What do people across the region want? Events suggest that they want individual freedoms, the demand for decent treatment and equal opportunities for ordinary people, and pluralism – not a fanatical world-view. Individuals like Bin Laden, who commit mass-murder through inciting or planning terrorist attacks, look irrelevant by comparison.
I wasn’t here in Kenya in 1998. But I was in Washington DC in September 2001, and felt at first hand the impact of those terrible attacks. I was in the UK in July 2005 when London was attacked. And I have had to deal in the course of my job with the aftermath of other terrorist atrocities, in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul and elsewhere.
Bin Laden wasn’t directly involved in all of those, but he and his propaganda provided part of the incitement for all of them. I am proud that the world responded to them not only with solidarity, and not only with better law enforcement cooperation, but also with more dialogue within and between communities.
I believe that there is now a better understanding how individuals get radicalised, and what combination of cultural alienation, socio-economic factors and disempowerment leads people to commit mass violence. A journalist asked me a couple of days ago whether this was all about grievances arising from the Palestinian/Israeli situation.
If I had been more eloquent at the time, I would have pointed out that Al Qaeda-type terrorism has claimed many justifications over the years: Bosnia, Chechnya, foreign troops in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East situation, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia.
The justification changes as world events move on, and seeks to claim that these are all part of a worldwide struggle, a global jihad. Sadly for the extremists, the truth is a bit more mundane, a bit less black-and-white.
These conflicts, all tragic, are born from many and varied causes – causes that have more to do with Man than God. I think fewer and fewer people are prepared to buy the idea of a grand conflict between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ – or even that you can pin down what either concept really means in geopolitical terms.
As Kenyan leaders have noted, the threat from terrorism has not gone away. The Kenyan authorities still need appropriate support to be able to keep Kenyans and visitors safe. This includes legislation to match the threat and methods of the terrorists. But I also understand the concerns around such legislation, and the human rights issues related to counter-terrorism in Kenya.
Police reform, including greater accountability and more community sensitive approaches to counter-terrorism should help alleviate those concerns, within the context of a strong bill of rights in the new Constitution.
So I would encourage community leaders, civil society and the Kenyan authorities to come together to agree a way forward on legislation and appropriate counter-terrorism approaches.
So as pundits are all busy pointing out in the wake of this week’s events, the threat of extremist terrorism is not over, and indeed there may even be a heightened risk of retaliation in the short term.
But I for one believe that those who preach hatred and murder by distorting peaceful religions are ruling themselves more and more marginal, and more and more reviled. It’s difficult to imagine anyone nowadays being able to create the sort of myth that Osama Bin Laden did for himself.
The author is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.