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The death of Osama bin Laden will have important consequences for the security of our people at home and abroad and for our foreign policy, including our partnership with Pakistan, our military action in Afghanistan and the wider fight against terrorism across the world. Last night, I chaired a meeting of Cobra to begin to address some of these issues, the National Security Council has met this morning and I wanted to come to the House this afternoon to take the first opportunity to address these consequences directly and to answer hon. Members’ questions.
At 3 am yesterday I received a call from President Obama. He informed me that US special forces had successfully mounted a targeted operation against a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden had been killed along with four others—bin Laden’s son, two others linked to him and a female member of his family entourage. There was a ferocious firefight and a US helicopter had to be destroyed but there was no loss of American life. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating President Obama and in praising the courage and skill of the American special forces who carried out this operation. It is a strike at the heart of international terrorism and a great achievement for America and for all who have joined in the long struggle to defeat al-Qaeda.
We should remember today in particular the brave British servicemen and women who have given their lives in the fight against terrorism across the world, and we should pay tribute especially to those British forces who played their part over the past decade in the hunt for bin Laden. He was the man who was responsible for 9/11, which was not only an horrific killing of Americans, but remains to this day the largest loss of British life in any terrorist attack. He was a man who inspired further atrocities, including those in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul and, of course, here in London on 7/7. He was, let us remember, a man who posed as a leader of Muslims, but was actually a mass murderer of Muslims all over the world. Indeed, he killed more Muslims than people of any other faith.
Nothing will bring back the loved ones who have been lost, and of course there is no punishment at our disposal that can remotely fit the many appalling crimes for which bin Laden was responsible, but I hope that at least for the victims’ families there is now some sense of justice being served, as a long dark chapter in their lives is finally closed. As the head of a family group for United Airlines flight 93, put it, we are
“raised, obviously, never to hope for someone’s death”,
but we are
“willing to make an exception in this case...He was evil personified, and our world is a better place without him.”
Britain was with America from the first day of the struggle to defeat al-Qaeda. Our resolve today should be as strong as it was then. There can be no impunity and no safe refuge for those who kill in the name of this poisonous ideology.
Our first focus should be our own security. Although bin Laden is gone, the threat of al-Qaeda remains. Clearly there is a risk that al-Qaeda and its affiliates in places such as Yemen and the Maghreb will want to demonstrate that they are able to operate effectively, and of course there is always the risk of a radicalised individual acting alone—a so-called lone-wolf attack. So we must be more vigilant than ever, and we must maintain that vigilance for some time to come.
The terrorist threat level in the UK is already at severe, which is as high as it can go without intelligence of a specific threat. We will keep that threat level under review, working closely with the intelligence agencies and the police. In terms of people travelling overseas, we have updated our advice and encourage British nationals to monitor the media carefully for local reactions, to remain vigilant, to exercise caution in public places and to avoid demonstrations. We have ordered our embassies across the world to review their security.
Let me turn next to Pakistan. The fact that bin Laden was living in a large house in a populated area suggests that he must have had an extensive support network in Pakistan. We do not currently know the extent of that network, so it is right that we ask searching questions about it, and we will. But let us start with what we do know. Pakistan has suffered more from terrorism than any other country in the world. As both President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani said to me when I spoke to them yesterday, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians have been killed in Pakistan, and more Pakistani soldiers and security forces have died fighting extremism than international forces killed in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden was an enemy of Pakistan. He had declared war against the Pakistani people and he had ordered attacks against them. President Obama said in his statement that
“counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Continued co-operation will be just as important in the days ahead.
I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to recognise that with Pakistan we share the same struggle against terrorism. That is why we will continue to work with our Pakistani counterparts on intelligence gathering, tracing plots and taking action to stop them. It is why we will continue to honour our aid promises, including our support for education as a critical way of helping the next generation of Pakistanis to turn their back on extremism. Above all, it is why we were one of the founder members of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, because I believe it is by working with the democrats in that country that we can make sure the whole country shares the same determination to fight terror and terrorism.
I also spoke yesterday to President Karzai in Afghanistan. We both agreed that the death of bin Laden provides a new opportunity for Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together in order to achieve stability on both sides of the border. Our strategy towards Afghanistan is straightforward and has not changed. We want an Afghanistan capable of looking after its own security without the help of foreign forces. We should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to separate themselves from al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.
The myth of bin Laden was that of a freedom fighter, living in austerity and risking his life for the cause as he moved around in the hills and mountainous caverns of the tribal areas. The reality of Bin Laden was very different: a man who encouraged others to make the ultimate sacrifice while he himself hid in the comfort of a large, expensive villa in Pakistan, experiencing none of the hardship he expected his supporters to endure.
Finally, let me briefly update the House on Libya. In recent weeks we have stepped up our air campaign to protect the civilian population. Every element of Gaddafi’s war machine has been degraded. Over the last few days alone, NATO aircraft have struck 35 targets, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, as well as bunkers and ammunition storage facilities. We have also made strikes against his command and control centres, which direct his operations against civilians. Over the weekend, there were reports that in one of those strikes Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, was killed. Let me be clear that all the targets chosen were clearly within the boundaries set by UN resolutions 1970 and 1973. These resolutions permit all necessary measures to protect civilian life, including attacks on command and control bases.
This weekend also saw attacks on the British and Italian embassies. We utterly deplore this. The Gaddafi regime is in clear breach of the Vienna convention to protect diplomatic missions, and we will hold it fully to account. We have already expelled the Libyan ambassador from London. The British embassy was looted as well as destroyed and the world war two memorial was desecrated. The UN has felt obliged to pull its people out for fear of attack.
Gaddafi made much of his call for a ceasefire, but at the very moment he claimed he wanted to talk, he had in fact been laying mines in Misrata harbour to stop humanitarian aid getting in. That is the regime—that is the man—we are dealing with. We will continue to enforce the UN resolutions until such time as they are fully in place, and that means continuing to turn up the pressure—sanctions pressure, diplomatic pressure and military pressure.
Bin Laden and Gaddafi were said to have hated each other, but there was a common thread running between them: they both feared the idea that democracy and civil rights could take hold in the Arab world. While we should continue to degrade, dismantle and defeat the terrorist networks, a big part of the long-term answer is the success of democracy in the middle east and, of course, the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli peace process. For 20 years, bin Laden claimed that the future of the Muslim world would be his, but Libya has shown, as Egypt and Tunisia did before it, that people are rejecting everything bin Laden stood for. Instead of replacing dictatorship with his extremist totalitarianism, they are choosing democracy.
Ten years on from the terrible tragedy of 9/11, with the end of bin Laden and the democratic awakening across the Arab world, we must seize this unique opportunity to deliver a decisive break with the forces of al-Qaeda and its poisonous ideology, which has caused so much suffering to so many across so many years. I commend this statement to the House.