Osama bin Laden’s death had little immediate impact on Russia’s own Islamist insurgency, which had occasional ties with al-Qaida, but a lot remains at stake for Moscow in Afghanistan, where a weakened al-Qaida is being sidelined by the Taliban, Russian foreign policy analysts said.
“Russia stands a chance of filling the upcoming political vacuum in the country,” said Viktor Korgun, the head of Afghan studies department at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.
Bin Laden was shot dead on May 2, 2011 at the age of 54 by a team of CIA agents and U.S. Navy SEALs in his house in Abbottabad outside Pakistani capital Islamabad.
His death weakened al-Qaida, which bin Laden headed for quarter of a century, but could not possibly undo the group, which is a network of semi-independent local cells, said Vladimir Bartenev, a foreign policy analyst with the Moscow State University.
American drone attacks on al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan played a bigger role in whittling the group down to its current core of some 1,500 fighters with a rotating cast of short-lived leaders than the hunt for bin Laden, Korgun said on Monday.
But outside Afghanistan, the al-Qaida is still active while “transforming into a set of loosely affiliated groups focusing on local grievances, be that in Yemen, Maghreb or elsewhere,” Bartenev said.
“And the al-Qaida guys in Yemen and Maghreb don’t care for bin Laden much, and didn’t for years,” he said.
The Afghan Mess
Bin Laden’s death constituted the main foreign policy achievement for U.S. President Barack Obama, who faces an election in November, experts said.
“It was more political than anything,” said Andrei Klimov, first deputy head of the international affairs committee at the Russian State Duma.
Obama picked the anniversary of bin Laden’s death for a snap visit to Kabul, where he signed a deal on strategic partnership with Afghani President Hamid Karzai.
The meeting indicated the White House was dubious about its allegedly ongoing talks with “moderate” Taliban and banking on the loyal Karzai, said Vladimir Sotnikov, a foreign affairs expert with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
The United States, which invaded Afghanistan in 2001, overthrowing the Taliban, are set to pull out their troops by 2014, leaving the country in the hands of Karzai’s government, though possibly aided by American military specialists. Whether he will retain power in the inevitable struggle with Taliban is anyone’s guess, analysts said.
The Taliban are unlikely to team up with al-Qaida like they did in the 1990s, Korgun said.
This is partly because the alliance de-facto cost them leadership of the country in 2001 and partly because the Afghanis will no longer accept al-Qaida, whose agents were outsiders who were much crueler to the locals than the Taliban, a domestic group, Korgun said.
The pullout could leave Russia with an all-out civil war flaring at its southern borders, unless every effort is made to facilitate stability in Afghanistan after the Americans’ departure, Sotnikov said.
Russia has spoken against the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and supported the military operation in the country, allowing the U.S.-led coalition forces to use military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Russia’s Ulyanovsk for transit, training Afghan police officers in Russia and selling helicopters intended for Afghan law enforcements to the United States in 2011.
President-elect Vladimir Putin has also called in a campaign article February for Russia’s economic involvement in rebuilding Afghanistan, but did not elaborate.
Putin’s proposal is sound, but Moscow needs a clearer view of its policy on Afghanistan to succeed in the country, Korgun said. Bilateral Russian-Afghan trade was nonexistent in 2011, according to Russia’s Federal Customs Service.
Countries with greatest risk of terrorism
The local focus of terrorism applies to separatists in Russia’s North Caucasus, despite their own history of ties to Islamist extremist groups, analysts said.
Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri traveled to Chechnya and Dagestan in mid-1990s, allegedly to forge connections with local jihadists, and spent some time in a Dagestani prison. Prominent insurgent leader in Chechnya, Khattab, killed in 2002, claimed to be al-Qaida’s emissary to the region.
Meanwhile, the separatist Chechen government in the 1990s had its embassy in Afghanistan, ruled at the time by the Taliban. One of insurgents’ statesmen, the late Shamil Basayev, who proceeded to become one of Russia’s own most notorious terrorists, is known to have toured Afghanistan and Pakistan in as early as 1994.
However, these times are long in the past, said Korgun of the Institute of Oriental Studies.
“There was some interaction between our separatists and al-Qaida, but no direct ties,” he said. “And the few Chechens in Kabul either moved back home or naturalized entirely.”
Jihad Goes Local
“You cannot end terrorism in the Muslim world, not any time soon, and possibly never,” said Bartenev of the Moscow State University.
But a crucial victory for the West was stopping the export of terrorism to Europe and America, where no big terrorist attacks took place since the London bombings in 2005, said Korgun.
Local affairs, not anti-Western jihad touted by bin Laden, are now the prime item on the cards for terrorists, Bartenev said.
However, this shift happened before bin Laden’s death, which was no more than a milestone in the anti-terrorism campaign, he said.