Alex Wilner, Zurich
If you didn’t know where Abbottabad, Pakistan was yesterday, you do today. That’s where Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces on May 1, 2011.
Mark the day; things may be different from now on.
Bin Laden’s demise comes nine years and seven months after al Qaeda carried out its devastating terrorist attack on Washington, D.C. and New York City. His death is the culmination of an unprecedented international manhunt. It isn’t farfetched to suggest that with bin Laden’s removal, a central objective of the global war on terrorism has finally been fulfilled.
Details of the military operation will be forthcoming in the days ahead. But until then, a number of important questions remain. It was long assumed that bin Laden was hiding out in either Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Western Pakistan. Abbottabad, on the other hand, is just 60 kilometers north of the capital, Islamabad, and rests on India’s border. How long has bin Laden been living there? It appears, too, that he had been hiding within a sprawling, heavily-fortified, multi-million dollar compound. Was it built especially to house and protect him? If so, who built it and when? And of course, given that bin Laden was finally located in Pakistan, there will be the inevitable questions regarding Pakistan’s government, military, and intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Who knew what, and for how long? And finally, there are early reports that bin Laden’s body, after having been retrieved by US forces, was “buried at sea”. What?! I can understand why the US might want to avoid inadvertently constructing a martyr’s shrine, but feeding bin Laden to the fish will only help stoke the conspiracy theorists. It would have made more sense to have invited Al Jazeera over for a photo-op.
For now, we can extrapolate as to what bin Laden’s death might mean more generally. In my view, there are two overarching effects. The first is inspirational; the second, organizational.
In the first case, Osama bin Laden has been the figurehead of global Islamist terrorism for almost two decades. Even before 9/11, his role in shaping and strengthening radical movements around the globe was unprecedented. He had wealth, vigor, and vision. His charisma attracted recruits, his inspiration galvanized their efforts. But it was 9/11 that propelled al Qaeda to the forefront of global terrorism and cemented bin Laden’s historical role within the movement. Less than a week after 9/11, President Bush declared that bin Laden was “wanted, dead or alive” and Vice-President Dick Cheney demanded bin Laden’s “head on a platter”.
But the decade that followed was an embarrassment to US efforts. Bin Laden lived on. In December 2001, he eluded capture, escaping a US offensive in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. After that, through his speeches and written addresses, he encouraged followers around the globe. Desperate militant groups in Iraq, North Africa, and Yemen banned together in his name and raised the al Qaeda banner. Bin Laden gave them his blessing. Other radical groups in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, the Philippines, and Libya, allied themselves with his cause. So, too, did thousands of homegrown radical sympathizers living in the West. Al Qaeda’s global rise was compounded by the West’s inability to locate, capture, or kill its leading figure. Every day bin Laden lived was a reminder of our own ineptitude.
Today, that inspirational process has been reversed. Bin Laden is dead; the US killed him. His elimination is good for our morale, bad for theirs. He no longer stands as the shadowy terrorist mastermind who repeatedly slipped away. Today, bin Laden is another terrorist thug who reaped his just reward. The message to his supporters is that death or capture will come … eventually.
But combating terrorism goes beyond diminishing the motivating factors that propels individual terrorists. Counterterrorism also requires disbanding the groups that orchestrate attacks; we need to target terrorists’ military capabilities, destroy bases of operation and safe havens, restrict terrorist financing, recruitment, and training, track would-be bombers, and defend potential target sites. We also need to target and kill terrorist leaders and drive their would-be replacements underground. As I’ve written elsewhere, targeted killings – the coordinated removal of individual terrorist leaders – can have a lasting effect on the capabilities of terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), for instance, wasn’t able to recuperate after the US located and killed its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. The Taliban, too, took time to rebuild after their star military commander, Mullah Dadullah, was killed by British Special Forces in 2007. The Israelis, French, Russians, and Britons have derived much the same lesson. And the drone war now being waged over Afghanistan and Pakistan is at least in part about eliminating terrorist leaders.
But bin Laden hasn’t been at the helm of al Qaeda for years. Very few of the terrorists currently acting in al Qaeda’s name have ever met bin Laden in person or had any contact with him directly. Bin Laden long ago stopped issuing operational commands. Al Qaeda’s various branches and nodes mostly act independently from one another and the attacks they orchestrate are autonomously driven, financed, and prepared. They may support bin Laden, but he has done little to support them.
Unfortunately, that means that bin Laden’s removal will have only a limited effect on the scope and nature of global terrorism. Al Qaeda, its regional franchises, and Western aspirants will continue to plot attacks with our without bin Laden’s blessing. Last Thursday’s bombing of a popular tourist cafe in Marrakesh, Morocco is a stark and sad reminder. Two Canadians were among the 14 foreigners killed; Michal Zekry (pregnant at the time of her death) and her husband Messod Wizman. Al Qaeda’s North African branch – al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – is likely responsible for their senseless deaths.
Even when he was alive, bin Laden would have had no operational control over that brutal attack. So while we should cheer bin Laden’s demise and praise US persistence in tracking him down, we shouldn’t expect that our war with al Qaeda will have ended on 5/11.