When Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in the 1990s, he argued that if Muslim terrorists hit hard enough, the United States would retreat. The relentless pursuit that led to bin Laden’s death Sunday proved that narrative of American weakness was wrong.
America’s difficulties in the Islamic world since Sept. 11, 2001, have come, if anything, from misplaced response or over-reaction to al-Qaeda’s attacks. But the idea that the U.S. would run away -- an analysis that bin Laden based on America’s flight from Beirut after 1983 bombings and from Somalia in 1994 after bloody attacks on U.S. troops there -- was convincingly refuted. Even after catastrophic mistakes in Iraq, President George W. Bush pressed on to sustain the American narrative of persistence in battle.
“We will be relentless in the defense of our citizens,” said President Obama in announcing bin Laden’s death from the White House, just before midnight. “Justice has been done.” They were statements that might have been in a classic Western movie about pursuit and retribution.
Obama Sunday night drew back the curtain slightly on the operation that led to the al-Qaeda leader’s death. He said it began eight months ago, when he was briefed on a possible lead. Over subsequent months, U.S. intelligence learned that bin Laden might be hiding in a compound in Pakistan. Last week Obama authorized a strike by U.S. Special Forces on a mansion in the town of Abbottabad, north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The fact that Pakistan didn’t (or couldn’t) stop the helicopter raid delivers another message. Critics of the CIA have argued that the agency’s operations against bin Laden over this past decade were fatally compromised by its combination of unilateral operations and cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. That assessment also proved mistaken -- at least as measured by Sunday’s operation.
One question for careful analysis in coming days is whether some elements of Pakistani intelligence knew that bin Laden was, in effect, hiding in plain sight in a compound near a facility of the Pakistani military. And it will be crucial, in terms of the future, how the American operation plays in Pakistan and other Muslim nations.
Al-Qaeda had lost its momentum long before the death of its leader. It burned too hot; it made enemies everywhere it gained a measure of power -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, even in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Islamic world increasingly turned away -- not from Salafist Islam of the sort that al-Qaeda practices, but from the terrorist tactics that ended up killing far more Muslims around the world than Americans.