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ND faculty experts discuss implications for Mid-East region

Sam Styker | Tuesday, May 3, 2011

News outlets and social media sites exploded with up-to-the-second content Sunday evening as President Barack Obama announced an American raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden hours earlier.

Though the nation celebrated, faculty experts on the Middle East said bin Laden’s death was not the end of the war on terror, even though it was a significant American victory.

Asher Kaufman, professor of History and Peace Studies, said bin Laden’s death is a major accomplishment for the United States, but the event is not critical to America’s involvement in the Middle East.

“I don’t see it making a major change in the broader sense of things,” Kaufman said. “This was a symbolic thing that mattered to the United States’ domestic consumption more than anything else.”

Though the pursuit of bin Laden represents one of the greatest manhunts in modern times, Kaufman said his death holds little impact on the American military presence in the region. He said leaders always understood there were two separate tasks at hand.

“United States politicians and political thinkers — those who make the decisions — they separated between the manhunt and United States ground strategy with regards to Afghanistan,” Kaufman said. “These were two different things.”

Despite this separation, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding Emad Shahin said the American military attack which resulted in bin Laden’s death might have yielded major results in terms of foreign policy.

“The war against terror will continue but I think the removal of bin Laden could be considered as a major step in ending this war,” Shahin said.

Shahin said Western nations should anticipate a violent retaliation from militant organizations in the region.

“It is possible that we should expect some kind of response from radical and terrorist organizations that have been inspired by the teachings and persona of bin Laden,” Shahin said. “They might take some violent action against United States and European interests in the region.”

Though some extremist groups may look for retribution on the United States, Kaufman said the fractured nature of al-Qaida means bin Laden’s death has little impact on how the organization will operate in the future.

“Most intelligence analysts think after he had to hide, Osama bin Laden lost his relevance as a leader. Al-Qaida changed structure completely,” Kaufman said. “There are now so many al-Qaida cells around the world that they do not really receive their orders from a central command. The al-Qaida of 2001 is not the al-Qaida of 2011.”

Shahin said recent revolutionary movements showed bin Laden’s mantra does not hold much traction in the Middle East.

“People in the Middle East have been involved in their peaceful, pro-democracy movements which, in their methods of non-violence, have discredited the violent methods of al-Qaida and bin Laden,” Shahin said.

Kaufman said political progress in the region shows its people are primarily concerned with advancing standards of living, not extremist movements.

“These revolutions show they were not motivated by al-Qaida,” Kaufman said. “These were mostly young people whose prime concern was socioeconomic issues, questions of corruption.”

Overall, Shahin said the region recognizes the importance the killing of bin Laden holds for Americans.

“Most people in the Middle East understand the horrendous nature of the attacks of Sept. 11 and the tragic impact they had on the American people,” Shahin said. “The killing of bin Laden comes after a decade-long confrontation between the United States and al-Qaida. This all would be understood.”

On the domestic front, American Studies Professor Jack Colwell said bringing bin Laden to justice might smooth over relations between Republicans and Democrats.

“I think this is a unifying moment, and there have been few of those, so it is a plus, some progress,” he said. “The debt ceiling and the budget will still be a pretty fierce partisan fight, but I think it may prevent some of the nastier personal attacks on the president.”

In addition to bipartisan relations, Colwell said Obama might personally benefit as president.

“It’s certainly a big plus for President Obama. I think his approval ratings will go up,” he said. “Whether they will stay up remains to be seen, but I think it is a big plus for right now.”

This political boost will aid Obama as he gears up for reelection in 2012, Colwell said.

“It makes it harder for Republican opponents who are potentially getting ready to run for president to attack Obama as weak and indecisive on national security and foreign policy,” he said. “That becomes very difficult to do now because he was not weak in this at all, and clearly not indecisive.”

Colwell said bin Laden’s death not only benefits the president’s political prospects but the spirit of the nation as well.

“I think it gets the country feeling a little better about itself,” he said. “It seemed like everything was negative, with the economy and people worrying about whether they will get a job if they are unemployed, sending there kids to college, pension.”

America’s gloom needed the boost the terrorist leader’s demise provided, Colwell said.

“There seemed to be a lot of pessimism and suddenly there is this big positive thing. It really has helped the mood of the country and how it feels about itself. It was a big boost for patriotism.”