After almost 10 years of the most intensive and expensive manhunt in the history of the world, Osama bin Laden is dead. The inevitable questions: What do we do now? What are al-Qaeda’s capabilities to do us harm?
For at least the past 15 years, bin Laden sought to acquire a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a career intelligence officer and former head of the CIA’s department on weapons of mass destruction, has observed that “al Qaeda is the only group known to be pursuing a long-term, persistent and systematic approach to developing weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks.” Bin Laden’s quest for a weapon of mass destruction was driven by his dogma that each attack against the United States or its interests abroad should be greater than any previous assault. This became operational in late 2002 or early 2003, Mowatt-Larssen reported, when al-Qaeda’s central leadership canceled a planned attack using a crude cyanide device on New York subways because it was waiting for “something better.”
It is probable that the next leadership of central al-Qaeda will not cling to bin Laden’s tenet, so if and until the new supreme leader acquires a weapon of mass destruction, Americans are likely to be threatened by significant but smaller attacks.
Meanwhile, the fruits of bin Laden’s efforts to acquire non-conventional weapons will be available to the new leader. Advances in technology have reduced the necessity of a significant organizational capacity for such weapons to be secured and utilized. A small group whose organizing principle is hatred of Americans could concoct a lethal brew of pathogens in a basement laboratory and stealthily disperse it through a vaporization machine in the back of a pickup truck, killing tens of thousands in a major American city.
So we must not see this as a time to relax our domestic vigilance. Ironically, the day bin Laden was dispatched was the eighth anniversary of the “Mission Accomplished” ceremony on the USS Abraham Lincoln. After that premature declaration of victory, an attitude took hold that America could quickly close the page on Iraq. That attitude proved dramatically wrong and resulted in an extension of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must not succumb to the same error again.
We should also be wary of the nebulous slogan “war on terrorism” and should name and target our actual enemies: al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other groups such as Hezbollah. At an operational level this means less attention to geography but, rather, a strategy with a laser focus on the specific organizations wherever they are located. For al-Qaeda this means not Afghanistan, where fewer than 100 operatives remain, but in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where many are known to operate. Executing this strategy will take the type of close-order combat required to kill bin Laden.
His death will not render al-Qaeda impotent. While the symbolic and intellectual force of bin Laden was formidable, al-Qaeda has a culture of leadership succession and a recent history of institutional transformation. The West and its Middle Eastern allies have been attacking al-Qaeda’s leadership structure since before Sept. 11, 2001, killing or capturing hundreds of its top and mid-management. In virtually all these instances, al-Qaeda has had a bench that allowed it to quickly and seamlessly replace each dispatched leader. Bin Laden’s successor will inherit a daunting challenge, but past experience suggests there is such a person prepared to assume leadership.
Since Sept. 11 al-Qaeda has undergone a fundamental transition. Before the attacks, it was a hierarchical structure with bin Laden the dominant figure at the top. Today, al-Qaeda is a franchise with 60 or more national or subnational units, with the stronger of these franchisees demonstrating a desire to be more independent of central al-Qaeda. Indeed, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has broken from bin Laden’s vision of increasingly larger attacks by launching a series of operations against the United States far smaller than that of Sept. 11, thankfully all unsuccessful. More fundamentally, this decentralization of al-Qaeda has provided the organization with enhanced local knowledge and nimbleness and a distributed leadership that reduces the significance of any single individual, even an Osama bin Laden.
What we need to do now is to sustain and intensify the post-bin Laden spirit that America can accomplish whatever it sets out to do. We must be vigilant and assured of full capability to deter, prevent and respond to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations whenever we discover them and wherever they are.
Bob Graham, a Democrat and former governor of Florida, chaired the Senate intelligence committee from 2001 to 2003. His novel “Keys to the Kingdom” is to be released next month.