NEW YORK — Even as U.S. President Barack Obama declared that “the world is safer” without Osama bin Laden, his Homeland Security office was bracing for a possible revenge attack.
The United States and other potential targets are right to be concerned. Though the death of bin Laden is an enormous symbolic victory for the United States, the network he spawned is undoubtedly seeking to transform him into a martyr.
But renewed vigilance should not come at the expense of human rights. Indeed, now is the time for the United States and its allies to take stock of past errors and forge a new approach to addressing the terrorism threat — one that does not compromise democratic freedoms and the rule of law in a quest to keep citizens safe.
If Obama fails to lead the world on this path, he risks further alienating Muslim populations, handing violent militants yet another recruitment tool, and undermining cherished values.
An important start would be for Obama to provide a full report on the Navy SEALs operation against bin Laden. Because the mass killing of civilians that bin Laden admitted to took place in several countries, the details of the operation and the questions it raises are of legitimate interest around the globe.
Obama should also complete the counterterrorism reforms he initiated when he took office more than two years ago. At that time he banned torture and promised to close secret prisons where the CIA held suspects incommunicado for months or years. Since then, he has capitulated to political opponents and backpedaled on further important reforms, such as closing the Guantanamo military prison and ending the use of fundamentally flawed military commissions to try terrorism suspects.
As the man who hunted down bin Laden, Obama is riding a wave of public support, which he should use to get U.S. counterterrorism practice back on track. This means finding ways to close Guantanamo, ending indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without charge, prosecuting terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than military commissions, and holding accountable those U.S. government officials responsible for secret detention programs and accompanying torture and other abuses.
Obama also should close covert detention centers in Afghanistan where special forces reportedly hold terrorism suspects for up to nine weeks and have subjected some detainees to forced nudity and other abusive treatment. Claims that intelligence from "enhanced" interrogations at a CIA "black site" provided a kernel of information that ultimately led to bin Laden, even if proved true, do not validate such practices, which in addition to being unlawful, are also unnecessary and ineffective.
Many suspects who were held and interrogated in purportedly lawful circumstances nevertheless provided intelligence, including David Coleman Headley, who pleaded guilty last year to involvement in the 2008 attacks on Mumbai; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009; and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to bomb Times Square in 2010.
At the same time, Obama should take actions that underscore the pledge he made in announcing bin Laden’s death: that the United States “is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” In the past decade, U.S. military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have killed thousands of civilians. Even if those deaths were the result of lawful actions, they have alienated local populations. U.S. military forces have made progress in lowering civilian casualty rates but more can be done to reduce them further.
Obama also should do more to demonstrate that not only is the United States not at war with the Muslim world, it also values the rights of Muslims everywhere to live in a democratic and free society. The Obama administration’s failure to suspend military cooperation with Bahrain or military assistance to Yemen in response to those two countries’ brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters as part of “Arab Spring” fuels suspicions among many Muslims that the United States cares about democracy only when it suits its strategic interests. It is no secret that Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and that Yemen allows the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations against Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obama called bin Laden’s death the most significant U.S. achievement to date in its counterterrorism efforts. A greater and more lasting achievement would be for the United States to fix its flawed counterterrorism policies.
Letta Tayler is a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch.