Bin Laden's Death Resonates in Australia

As in the U.S., the killing of the al-Qaeda leader stirs a complicated and emotional reaction to years of terrorism, costly engagement in two wars, and a nation's idea of itself

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David Gray/Reuters

SYDNEY, Australia -- There were no raucous street celebrations, but Australia marked the death of Osama bin Laden in a manner befitting a nation that has lost more of its citizens in al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks than any Western country other than Britain and the United States, and that lost many soldiers fighting alongside American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"EVIL DEAD," screamed The Daily Telegraph from its front page. While that euphoria was not surprising for the conservative tabloid, even The Sydney Morning Herald, a liberal-leaning broadsheet, let loose:

Osama Bin Laden

"VENGEANCE. At Last," it spread across the front page. Above, in large letters, it recounted:

There were 2,976 innocent lives were lost on September 11, 2001. In Iraq and Afghanistan 7,000 coalition troops and some 100,000 civilians have since died. The wars combined have coast America $1.1 trillion and counting.

Two Australians who had been held in Guantanamo for several years on suspicions of being members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network had markedly different reactions.

"I can't say if I'm happy or not," Mamdouh Habib remarked on bin Laden's death. There was no evidence that bin Laden carried out the September 11 attacks, said Habib, who was picked up in Pakistan a few weeks after the attack. U.S. officials said he had been in Afghanistan training with Al Qaeda, which he has denied. He was secretly taken by the CIA to Egypt, where he has said he was tortured, including with electric shocks. He was released from Guantanamo in 2005, without any formal charges having been filed against him.

On Monday, Habib said he was "angry and upset" by the singing and dancing in the United States at the news of bin Laden's death. He added that he would do what U.S. crowds are doing now when George W. Bush died, as well as former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "These people tortured me," he said.

David Hicks, who American and Australian officials said trained at several al-Qaeda camps prior to the 9/11 attacks, said he welcomed bin Laden's death: "It is a relief that a man who has been responsible for the death of so many people has been put in a position where he can no longer cause any more harm." Described by some officials as a naive, lost soul in search of adventure -- at one time he fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army -- and by others as a committed jihadist, Hicks was held in Guantanamo for five years before being released after he entered a plea to a relatively minor count of providing material support for a terrorist organization.

Ten Australians were killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington on the day of the attacks, when he immediately invoked the mutual defense treaty between the United States, Australia and New Zealand (ANZUS). It was a dubious legal move, as the treaty calls for one country to come to the defense of the other in the event of an attack in the Pacific, but it had considerable symbolic value.

Howard's conservative political views meshed with those of the Bush Administration -- he once referred to himself as Bush's "deputy sheriff" -- and he unreservedly committed Australian troops to the American-led war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, even though that war was highly unpopular here.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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