As American allies from across the globe hailed the demise of Osama bin Laden, two nations are likely to have their reactions to the al-Qaeda leader’s death parsed more closely than any others: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
For the birthplace and final hideout of bin Laden, the Islamist’s killing is likely to prove both welcome and politically awkward, since al-Qaeda and related extremists have threatened to overthrow both regimes, even while elements in both countries played a central role in radicalising the terrorist organisation and its followers.
The Pakistani foreign ministry said in an English statement that the government of Asif Ali Zardari, president, hailed bin Laden’s killing as a “major setback to terrorist organisations around the world”. It insisted that al-Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan along with its western allies.
“Scores of al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks resulted in deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistani men, women and children,” the foreign ministry said. “Almost 30,000 Pakistani civilians lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years.”
With the public acknowledgement that US special forces conducted the raid on their own, and with Pakistani media reporting that Mr Zardari was not consulted beforehand, the foreign ministry’s response is likely to be the first salvo in what will be a difficult domestic fight over the operation, since American military policy in the region, particularly strikes inside Pakistan, is already increasingly unpopular in the streets.
According to the Pakistani daily Dawn, Mr Zardari convened an emergency meeting of his top government and security officials immediately after being informed of the raid by Barack Obama, who in his Sunday night address urged Pakistan to remain steadfast.
“I called President Zardari and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts,” Mr Obama said. “They agree that this is a good and historic day for both our nations, and going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”
The Saudi government had not issued a formal statement by mid-Monday. In online forums, as well, Saudi nationals expressed mixed views.
Some alleged a picture of bin Laden’s face post-mortem, released to Arab-language satellite networks, was 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 Mr bin Laden’s involvement with the September 11 attacks and to believe that videotaped confessions are products of Hollywood.
Qubul al-Hajri, a Saudi journalist who opposes bin Laden’s ideology, gave voice to those beliefs, telling the Financial Times that the timing of the operation raised questions as the US seeks to manage the ongoing upheaval throughout the region.
“I am not sure he was actually killed,” said Mr al-Hajri. “Why wasn’t he displayed like Saddam? Why are they taking his body? It is disrespectful.”
In the first hours after the announcement, fierce online debate erupted as many Saudis condemned Mr 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 Mr bin Laden to Saladin, suggesting he “liberated Muslims from their humiliation”.
But other Saudi respondents on Twitter noted that the al-Qaeda leader killed more Saudis than citizens of 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 House of Saud and inspired dozens of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia against civilians, expatriates, oil installations and government offices from 2003 through 2006, killing hundreds.
Bin Laden 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 Mohammed bin Naif, the assistant minister of interior and counter-terrorism chief, who was responsible for the campaign in Saudi Arabia that drove them out of the kingdom, where some regrouped in Yemen.
“Bin Laden has harmed Saudi Arabia, but al-Qaeda was popular because of injustices against the Muslim world, in Palestine, Pakistan, 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 allies in the region were less conflicted. In neighbouring India, foreign minister S.M. Krishna, called the killing a “historic development and victorious milestone” in the global war on terror and urged the continuation of the struggle.
“The world must not let down its united effort to overcome terrorism and eliminate the safe-havens and sanctuaries that have been provided to terrorists in our own neighbourhood,” he said in a statement.
Similarly, in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, congratulated the US in a statement released on Monday: “This is a resounding victory for justice, freedom and the common values of all democracies that are resolutely fighting shoulder to shoulder against terrorism,” he said.
But the killing drew sharp criticism from leaders of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement. Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, told a press conference: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. We ask God to offer him mercy.”
Mr Haniyeh said the death of the al-Qaida leader marked the “continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood”.
Ismail al-Ashqar, a Gaza-based Hamas member of parliament, described the assassination as a “crime and state terrorism for which America is responsible”.
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi and Tobias Buck in Jerusalem