Bin Laden: mixed emotions in S Arabia

By Abeer Allam in Riyadh. This article originally appeared on ft.com

Peshawar, PAKISTAN: Posters of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden hang at a road side book stall in Peshawar, 23 September 2006.

In the land of his birth, reports of the death of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden in Pakistan surfaced early on Monday morning, sparking mixed emotions ranging from cheers, mourning, denial, to a stream of conspiracy theories.

While the government has not yet issued a formal statement, Saudis on Monday expressed mixed views in online forums. Some alleged pictures of a dead bin Laden on the internet to be a fake, citing the shape of his face and grey hair as proof. Such claims are a consistent refrain in the region, where many continue to doubt bin Laden’s involvement in the September 11 attacks and believe that videotaped confessions are products of Hollywood.

However one Saudi security expert, who asked not to be named, told the Financial Times that bin Laden’s death is a major step forward in the fight against al-Qaeda, but it does not end the threat in Saudi Arabia. “Al-Qaeda has franchised and eliminating the offshoots will require a great deal of further effort,” the expert said.

Other Saudis focused on conspiracy theories. Qubul al-Hajri, a Saudi journalist opposed to bin Laden’s ideology, told the Financial Times that the timing of the operation raised questions. “Osama bin Laden is a Muslim who committed crimes but what about the crimes committed in Palestine? I am not sure he was actually killed. Why wasn’t he displayed like Saddam? Why are they taking his body? It is disrespectful.”

In the first hours after the announcement, fierce debate arose as many Saudis condemned bin Laden as a criminal who tarnished Saudi Arabia and Islam, while others called him a martyr for defying western imperialism.

One online poster urged revenge against America, noting that hundreds of Taliban who recently escaped prison in Afghanistan might now be “looking for a job.” Another compared bin Laden with Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, the Muslim hero who defeated the crusaders, suggesting he “liberated Muslims from their humiliation.’’

But other Saudi respondents on Twitter noted that bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of more Saudis than any Western country. “How could anyone call him martyr when he killed thousands?” Others dismissed his religious militancy, asserting that “jihad does not justify his crimes.’’

Bin Laden had vowed to bring down the ruling Al Saud family and inspired dozens of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia itself after September 11 2001 against civilians, expatriates, oil installations and government offices. From 2003 through 2006, al-Qaeda-linked militants killed hundreds in the kingdom.

Bin Laden himself was expelled from the kingdom in 1991 and is officially deemed a criminal religious deviant.

In 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attempted to assassinate Prince Mohamed bin Naif, the Assistant Minister of the Interior and counterterrorism chief who was responsible for the campaign which drove violent militants out of the kingdom. Some subsequently regrouped in Yemen.

“Bin Laden has harmed Saudi Arabia, but al-Qaeda was popular because of injustices against the Muslim world, in Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Mohsen al-Awaji, an Islamist thinker. “Al-Qaeda’s appeal was greatest years ago, when America invaded Muslim countries, but it has diminished in recent years. Bin Laden’s death marks the final sunset of al-Qaeda.”

Other analysts noted that al-Qaeda has grown increasingly irrelevant to the Arab narrative in view of recent political popular revolts in the Arab world, as the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, long seen by Islamist militants as puppet governments loyal to the West, have been removed by their own people.

“Al-Qaeda was eclipsed by events in Egypt and Tunis,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi analyst. “The Arab youth, the usual recruits targeted by al-Qaeda, abandoned them, fighting for freedom and justice by non-violence. They succeeded, where al-Qaeda has failed to achieve anything.”

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