To his followers, he was an icon of resistance. To others, he was a Sheikh. But during his last hour, the notorious, grey-bearded, terrorist mastermind was in the crosshairs of an elite operation that would finally serve him justice.
For years, intelligence had worked to track the cleric, a founder and spiritual authority of the terrorist organization that had killed countless civilians. He had even narrowly escaped the bombing of the compound in which he and his leadership were gathered.
But he wasn’t so lucky that last hour when a pre-dawn, helicopter raid ended everything in a flash.
Except this wasn’t 2011.
The year was 2004. And the target was Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
– assassinated by an Israeli Air Force missile in the Gaza Strip.
Israel's killing of Yassin – who personally directed hundreds of bombings and murderous attacks against civilians (Israeli and foreign) – was widely condemned by the world community, the United Nations, and most Western powers. "Unjustified” and “unlawful," chided then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Even the American representative to the U.N., John Negroponte, said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by Israel’s actions.
But today, as those same governments applaud the assassination of Osama bin Laden (except Hamas, which condemned the killing) and assess the next steps against Al-Qaeda, perhaps they can learn from the experience of the Israelis, who first pioneered the practice of targeted killings of bin Laden’s “peers” in Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and even in branches of Al-Qaeda.
To begin with, many question and criticize the decision to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. Some claim it wasn’t sensitive enough to Islamic practice, others wish to see the body as definite proof of bin Laden’s death.
Nevertheless, with DNA testing already confirming bin Laden’s death with 99.9 percent confidence, disposing the body at sea will likely prove a wise decision in preventing bin Laden’s physical enshrining as a martyr.
Consider what happened in Gaza the day after Yassin’s assassination, during which his body was not removed or quickly disposed of by Israeli forces. The Palestinian Authority immediately declared three days of mourning, and nearly 200,000 Palestinians gathered in the streets of Gaza for the public funeral for the slain terrorist leader. Gunmen wearing Hamas headbands fired shots in the air, and throngs of weeping mourners pushed and shoved just to touch Yassin’s coffin, draped in the green and white flag of Hamas.
“Everyone here is like another Sheikh Yassin,” one Palestinian said. “Because of this, another million people will come out to take his place.”
As expected, Hamas did appoint a new leader the very next day
– Yassin’s former “right hand,” Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who vowed revenge for the slain Hamas founder.
Yet Israel anticipated this and sent a clear follow-up message to Hamas and its partner organizations, assassinating Rantisi only a month after he had assumed his leadership role.
The very same dynamic could likely occur in the next few weeks with Al-Qaeda now that its head has been eliminated. The loss of bin Laden will no doubt strike a serious blow to the morale of many Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. However, much like with Hamas and Hezbollah which have fired tens of thousands of rockets into Israel since 2006, the death of one leader will likely not prevent continued attacks.
Over the last decade, Al-Qaeda has become more of a global network of independent cells all sharing the same ideology and resources. This was evident just last week when an Al-Qaeda cell bombed a cafe in Morocco.
The challenge in counterterrorism is sustaining pressure on terrorist organizations from both the top-down and bottom-up. And from its experience having cut the heads off of multiple “snakes,” Israel understands this perhaps more than anyone. Bin Laden’s demise should thus be viewed as a crucial means, but definitely not the end.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons