The killing of Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden is not likely to have a profound impact one way or the other in the struggle against the terrorist organization and its allied groupings. On the one hand, Al-Qaeda may face a potential leadership void and internal divisions. On the other hand, the organization has decentralized in the ten years since the United States and allied forces drove them from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and terrorist cells operate independently from bin Laden’s leadership and a whole new generation of terrorists subscribing to the apocalyptic and genocidal ideology has sprung up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The good news, however, is that Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups have been seriously weakened in recent months. Indeed, far more significant than bin Laden’s death has been the nonviolent pro-democracy insurrections that have been sweeping the Arab world in that they are empowering civil society, instilling hope, and creating models of governance that are much less likely to breed terrorists.
Bin Laden always insisted that only through subscribing to his reactionary ideology and terroristic methods could Muslim peoples overthrow oppressive and corrupt U.S.-backed Arab dictatorships. Indeed, his first attack against U.S. interests was a residential compound of U.S. soldiers training the repressive Saudi internal security forces back in 1995. However, bin Laden and his followers never came close to overthrowing any Arab regime. Most Arabs found his methods not only morally reprehensible, but recognized how he gave dictatorial governments an excuse to crack down even harder against all dissent. Instead, millions of Middle Easterners are recognizing that – as did Filipinos, Poles, Chileans, Serbs and others before them – that strategic nonviolent action is far more powerful and effective. The masses calling for freedom, liberty, and social justice directly counter bin Laden’s medieval visions of a theocratic dictatorship to which very few Muslims aspire.
The sense of triumphalism and celebration of bin Laden’s death is inappropriate, though, in many respects, the Obama administration handled the situation well. Any killing of a prominent leader by hostile forces could conceivably cause a backlash – and, ideally, it would have been better had he been captured and tried in an international tribunal – but the circumstances of his death will hopefully minimize any anti-American reaction.
Bin Laden was killed in a firefight by commandoes assaulting his compound, not as a result of assassination by an anonymous drone launched in a control center thousands of miles away. Despite formal denials by both sides, there was clearly some cooperation with Pakistani authorities, so it was not a unilateral American operation. It appears that there were no civilian casualties. Bin Laden was buried in accordance with Muslim ritual, rather than having his body unceremoniously displayed in a propaganda show.
How this contrasts with the policies of Bush administration: If there was any logic to the madness of 9/11, it was the hope that the United States would overreact and launch massive ground invasions of Middle Eastern countries, like the Soviets did in Afghanistan a generation later. Bin Laden knew that the inevitable large-scale killings of civilians and blatant neo-imperialist agenda inherent in such ill-fated efforts would radicalize a whole new generation of extremists to bin Laden’s cult-like heresy in the name of Islam. Bush fell right into his trap, naively believing that a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells could be destroyed through high-altitude bombing, and sending U.S. forces into fighting bloody counter-insurgency wars in Islamic countries with a long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders.
To Obama’s credit, he recognized the folly of the invading Iraq, correctly noting that unilaterally taking over a country that was no threat to us and had absolutely no operational ties to Al-Qaeda would be a major distraction from the fight against an organization that really was a threat. Ironically, however, most of his key appointments to relevant positions in his administrations were supporters of the illegal and unnecessary war: Joe Biden as vice-president; Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State; Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense; Janet Napolitano as Secretary for Homeland Security; Richard Holbrooke as special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Dennis Ross as special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia; among others. His willingness to appoint people who clearly had difficulty distinguishing real threats from phantom threats raised serious questions regarding whether he really took the threat from Al-Qaeda seriously.
However, the final demise of Osama bin Laden appears to have come not through the indiscriminate use of force against entire nations, but through a well-planned precisely-targeted paramilitary operation based upon solid intelligence painstakingly gathered over many months.
(Ironically, it appears that bin Laden could have been caught soon after 9/11. Pakistani and British newspapers reported that in the weeks after the attack that leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic-identified parties negotiated a deal that could have avoided war. According to these reports, the Taliban would have extradited bin Laden to Pakistan to face an international tribunal that would then decide whether to try him or hand him over to the United States. However, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain pressured that country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to kill the deal. An American official was later quoted saying that “casting our objective too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.” In short, the United States actually preferred going to war than bringing bin Laden to justice.)
Similarly, improved intelligence and interdiction, com bined with breaking up the financial networks that supplied Al-Qaeda operatives, have done far more the prevent another 9/11-type attack than military operations.
Ultimately, the way to stop the threat of the kind of mega-terrorism that came to America’s shores nearly ten years ago is not simply through killing terrorists but in ending policies that help create them. As most Muslims long recognized, bin Laden was never an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training who – like any shrewd businessman – knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestoes – the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the humanitarian consequences of the U.S. policy in Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government, and U.S. backing of autocratic Arab regimes – have widespread appeal in that part of the world. Even if only a tiny percentage of Muslims accept bin Laden’s ideology and tactics, it will be enough to replenish the ranks of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups as long as the United States continues to pursue such misguided policies.