Rajeev Sharma

Rajeev Sharma


What’s been the response to the killing of Osama bin Laden in India?

The Indian response has been fairly balanced and certainly not ballistic. Home Minister P Chidambaram’s response seems to have been the most aggressive, but even he has said the usual, routine thing that India has been saying for years: that Pakistan has become a sanctuary for jihadists. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has also pointed out the same thing, although in a much softer way. The response of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been very cautious and he’s chosen not to twist the knife at a time when the entire international community has been hauling Pakistan over the coals for its apparent duplicity in the war against terror.

However, the diplomatic establishment in India has been unusually accommodating towards Pakistan. One top diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, reportedly went as far as saying that India will continue to promote peaceful relations with Pakistan, irrespective of the revelations on the bin Laden front. The diplomat also trashed the idea that India should take advantage of the precedent set by the United States in taking out bin Laden in a covert commando operation launched in the heart of Pakistan. The reasoning is that Pakistan is no pushover and that unlike India, the US isn’t a neighbour of Pakistan.

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You wrote a book before 9/11 on Osama bin Laden. Back then he would have been much less well known to many people in the West. What made you decide to write the book, and how hard was it finding information on him back then?

I was, and still am, quite fascinated by the persona of bin Laden, though I’m certainly neither a sympathizer nor advocate when it comes to his terrorist acts. He was an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. How many billionaires can give up their posh and comfortable lifestyles and live in damp caves with snakes and scorpions as bin Laden did in Afghanistan in the early 1990s? He was a creation of the Americans and eventually proved to be their nemesis. His criticism of the United States is in many ways quite logical, although the method of his opposition is blatantly unacceptable. Surprisingly, I found some senior Indian officials loaded with valuable information about bin Laden, and even more surprisingly, found them willing to share it. Because they were so forthcoming, I managed to write the book quite quickly.

How much of a blow is it to al-Qaeda to lose bin Laden?

Not much really. Osama bin Laden had been strait-jacketed for years. This was shown by the rapidly decreasing frequency of his messages to the world through videotapes. For the last couple of years, even the videotapes weren’t forthcoming and he had to make do with audio, which requires much less effort and logistics. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11 last year, he couldn’t even arrange an audio tape.

In the two years following 9/11, al-Qaeda’s capabilities were substantially degraded and dozens of its key operatives and hundreds of its cadres were either liquidated or arrested. Over the years, it consciously embarked on a strategy to change its operations and underwent a significant mutation process. Today’s al-Qaeda is no longer a monolith as it once was. As a result, the organization today is also decentralized. New subsidiaries like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have sprung up.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but ‘bin Ladenism’ is alive and kicking and will likely live on. Osama bin Laden is seen by his sympathizers as an inspirational figure, a sort of a jihadist Che Guevara. In the jihadi world, he’s looked upon as a legend—and legends don’t die with the death of the person.

Governments around the world, particularly the US, are warning of retaliatory strikes as al-Qaeda tries to reassert itself. What do you expect?

There’ll be retaliatory strikes, but I don’t see them happening in the United States. Al-Qaeda couldn’t manage an encore performance after 9/11, though the outfit threatened to do so a number of times. An attack on US soil is out of al-Qaeda’s reach as of now. However, al-Qaeda can hit at US interests abroad, which I feel it will try to do. Their most ambitious strikes may take place in Europe, though right now it’ll feel like nothing less than rocket science for them. They’ll find it much easier to indulge in retaliatory strikes in the Arab world and Africa and will try to target US interests there. However, I expect the Af-Pak region to bear the brunt of the retaliatory strikes. As far as India is concerned, I don’t see any retaliatory strikes rocking India as al-Qaeda (which in Arabic means ‘The Base’) has no base in India.

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