This article has been updated since it was first published.
Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies; senior fellow at the U.S. military’s Combating Terrorism Center
Confronted with the sudden death of a leader, terrorist groups become cornered animals. When wounded they lash out — not only in hopes of surviving but also to demonstrate their remaining power and continued relevance.
Al-Qaeda is already displaying this behavior. Consider its statement on Friday confirming Osama bin Laden’s death: “The soldiers of Islam, groups and individuals, will continue planning . . . until they cause the disaster that makes children look like the elderly!”
Al-Qaeda will thus keen for its leader by killing. It will not necessarily attack soon. But we should brace ourselves once the 40-day mourning period that some Muslims observe ends. The dual prospect of punishing the United States and reigniting fear and anxiety must surely figure in al-Qaeda’s calculus for the future.
First, we should be concerned about the acceleration of al-Qaeda attacks already in the pipeline. Just days ago German authorities disrupted a planned al-Qaeda strike in Berlin. We must assume that additional plots are in motion or will soon be.
Second, we need to worry about al-Qaeda harnessing the social networking tools that facilitated the “Arab Spring” to spark a transnational spate of spontaneous terrorist acts. These lower-level incidents would preoccupy and distract intelligence agencies in hopes that a spectacular al-Qaeda attack will avoid detection and dramatically shatter our complacency.
Third, Friday’s statement indicates that al-Qaeda will seek to further strain Pakistan’s relations with America. By summoning its jihadi allies and ordinary citizens against the Pakistani government — which the group described as “traitors and thieves who sold everything to [Islam’s] enemies” — al-Qaeda hopes to undermine Pakistan’s fragile democracy by creating a popular backlash against the United States.
Finally, al-Qaeda affiliates like its Yemen franchise will embrace vengeance to further burnish their terrorist credentials as rising stars in the movement’s firmament.
Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute
If the real world were like the “Wizard of Oz,” then killing Osama bin Laden would be like melting the Wicked Witch of the West, and all the munchkins would be free. But it isn’t and we aren’t.
Yet some insist, Oz-like, that now that bin Laden is dead, the war is done. In its new cover story, the widely read National Journal explains that the war “as an organizing principle” for American foreign policy “has ended.” A new era, we are meant to understand, has begun: It will be organized around the principle of the Arab Spring.
This orderly martialing of foreign policy into the pre- and post-Osama eras betrays a deep misunderstanding of the battle in which we are still engaged. Bin Laden was a potent emblem of the enemy, but not its sole heart or brain. The enemy continues to fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. That enemy exploits physical space where it can and ideological space throughout the Muslim world — space created by autocrats bent on dividing the Middle East into Islamists and secular tyrants. Many forced to flip a coin were willing to try the former. But as we are learning this Arab Spring, the choice is false.
And that is why we have partners in the war we are still fighting, which, like any, cannot be won by military means alone. Those partners are the young people in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. If their demands are any indication, they don’t seek a new caliphate, as bin Ladenists would hope. They’re looking for the representative democracy and economic opportunity that al-Qaeda has inveighed against.
The long war on terrorism — or whatever you want to call it — will be won when our military and all those in the streets of the Middle East have secured the terrain we are fighting on for the only kind of stability that lasts: stability rooted in freedom.
JUAN C. ZARATE
Senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009
Terrorism won’t end with Osama bin Laden’s death, but America’s daring operation into Pakistan has produced strategic ripple effects at a critical juncture.
Bin Laden’s death is a crippling blow to the al-Qaeda Hydra, removing the founder who galvanized the global movement against the West. Internal leadership divisions will grow within al-Qaeda, and the Arab Spring threatens to sideline bin Laden’s ideology. The intelligence windfall recovered by our Navy Seals will energize the hunt for senior al-Qaeda leaders and renew pressure on Pakistan as well as Iran to account for senior Qaeda leaders in their respective countries.
The strategic implications of this event go beyond global terror. Unilateral action by U.S. forces into bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway has heightened tensions with Pakistan. Debate has reopened here and abroad about our mission in Afghanistan, with the United States now in a position of strength ahead of any troop withdrawals this summer.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is relishing the world’s distraction as he continues his crackdown. The Arab Spring protesters depend on media attention to build leverage, and this event distracts from Assad’s atrocities at a critical moment, giving his regime much-needed breathing space. In the Levant, peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians are fading fast after Hamas’s offensive statement lauding bin Laden as a Muslim warrior, just as a Palestinian unity government is announced.
The United States must seize the moment and leverage the strategic advantage from bin Laden’s death — challenging the self-fulfilling prophecy of America’s decline and ensuring that our enemies across the world sleep a little less easy.
Staff member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration; member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law
While America debates whether Osama bin Laden’s death will strengthen or weaken the global jihadist movement, the fallout that is likely to be most dangerous is already forming in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials are busy defending themselves against various audiences. To their critics in the West, they claim ignorance of bin Laden’s whereabouts ahead of the U.S. strike. To their domestic critics, they claim ignorance of the operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death, and they warn the United States that they will not countenance future unilateral operations. But the group calling itself the “general leadership” of al-Qaeda is skeptical of both these claims and on Friday urged the Pakistani people to rise up against their leaders in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence organizations have long been internally divided, with some supporting al-Qaeda and its local affiliates, and others wanting to contain them and direct the organizations’ activities to target only India. Still others hope to rid Pakistan of its jihadist culture. It strains credulity that there are not individuals working at cross purposes in Pakistan — some of whom were assisting bin Laden and other terrorists, with others hoping to rout him and the movement he helped to spawn. In a statement posted on pro-jihadist Web sites Friday, the “general leadership” of al-Qaeda urged the people of Pakistan “to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves . . . and in general to cleanse their country from the filth of the Americans who spread corruption in it.”
Some are arguing that aid to Pakistan should be cut off. But non-military aid programs targeted at schools and hospitals, under the Kerry-Lugar program, need to be seen for what they are: a form of counterterrorism.
In the short run, the death of bin Laden will strengthen the jihadist movement, especially in Pakistan. The biggest U.S. policy challenge may well be to contain the explosion we inadvertently helped to ignite.
SANAA ANSARI KHAN
What will Osama bin Laden’s death mean for American Muslims? Probably the same thing it will mean for any other American — but with the added hope that this development will lift the cloud of suspicion that has hung over Muslims in this country since Sept. 11, 2001.
In the past 10 years, America has become entangled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with its civil liberties compromised here at home. I know — I have worked on cases involving American Muslims’ civil rights.
Yet if there is a lesson to be learned from world events this spring, it is of the irrelevance of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. They were not behind the revolutionary waves sweeping the Middle East. Arab populations in Tunisia and Egypt did not adopt al-Qaeda’s tactics but brought down their despotic regimes through popular and nonviolent movements. Meanwhile, American Muslims are more concerned with going about our daily lives, and traveling without added hassle, than with al-Qaeda.
In diverse, cosmopolitan communities, backlash against minorities sometimes occurs. Efforts at interfaith dialogue are crucial to generate understanding among the diverse communities and constituencies in the United States and other countries. Such efforts are best implemented in communities on a personal level.
After last weekend’s news, the Vatican issued a statement noting that “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” All peace-seeking members of the world community share in that responsibility.
HEATHER A. WILSON
U.S. representative from New Mexico from 1998 to 2009; Republican candidate for Senate
The killing of Osama bin Laden was a great victory for America, our military and intelligence services, and, yes, for President Obama. Those on the right who deny that are playing politics as much as those on the left, such as Chris Matthews, who absurdly claim that President George W. Bush deserves none. It seems pretty clear that information gleaned from interrogating terrorists captured years ago gave America the threads experts ultimately followed to bin Laden.
The discussion should not be about who deserves credit but about keeping America safe.
The fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates is far from over. Here’s a fact for those who argue that it is long past time to withdraw from Afghanistan: The operation that took out bin Laden would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without a safe base of operations on the Afghan side of the border.
Now is the time to keep up the pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates so we can capture or kill those who seek to carry out its murderous agenda. Bin Laden’s death creates disruption within al-Qaeda, sparking communication and reorganization amid rivalries for power. Combined with the trove of information taken from bin Laden’s computers, these activities should be detected and acted upon by U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism forces.
America spends tremendous resources studying intelligence failures. We also need to understand what went right and why, so the lessons can guide intelligence collection and analysis going forward.
The petty debate over who should get political credit misses the real source of success: the intelligence analysts and agents whose names we will never know, who worked tirelessly for 10 years to see that justice was done.
Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center; author of “Deadly Embrace; Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad”
President Obama’s much-maligned AfPak strategy delivered a home run last week, but it still has much to do. Since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has focused on Pakistan. It has built alliances with the Pakistan Taliban (with whose help it murdered former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and two prominent Pakistani politicians this year) and groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba (which it helped inspire to carry out the Mumbai attacks in 2008). Al-Qaeda and its allies are not a monolith, but together these groups are a syndicate of murder. They are deeply entrenched in urban centers such as Lahore and Karachi as well as in the tribal badlands near Afghanistan. Their operatives cooperate closely in terrorost plots, and their sympathizers have infiltrated the army and security services (bin Laden clearly had powerful protectors in Abbottabad, the military city where he was killed).
The Pakistani army, meanwhile, is at war with some of the jihadist Frankenstein it helped create (the Taliban) and in bed with others (Lashkar-i-Taiba). It has played a double game with and against terrorism for years. Soon Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will be the world’s fifth-largest, and the country’s very weak civilian government is struggling against jihadism like no other. Bin Laden and his likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, increasingly believed that Pakistan is their best chance at a global game-changer: a coup that delivers to the global jihad the world’s sixth-most-populous country with the bomb. That remains deeply unlikely, but it is a possibility that keeps the Obama national security team awake at night. Zawahiri has even written a book on why and how Pakistan should become a jihadist state. Let’s hope the laptops found in Abbottabad lead us to more hideouts.
It is easy to get angry with Pakistan, but that’s not a strategy. We need a healthy Pakistan that fights terrorism. That means helping democratic forces, such as President Asif Ali Zardari, despite their shortcomings.
Senior fellow at the RAND Corp.; former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and former deputy national security adviser
Osama bin Laden’s death changes the political geography of the region around Pakistan and requires a fundamental rethinking of U.S. policy and interests.
The evidence is mounting that Pakistan was complicit in sheltering bin Laden. He was, in large part, Pakistan’s meal-ticket to billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Islamabad has been doing just enough to keep the money flowing but not enough to kill the golden goose. This is no longer tenable.
Did Pakistan ever seriously intend to stop al-Qaeda and the Taliban from using its territory as a sanctuary?
If U.S. policymakers determine that the answer is no, efforts to foster a viable regime in Kabul or “win” the war in any other sense of the word could be seriously undermined. Moreover, such a determination would mean that the principal rationale for going into Afghanistan — to keep it from becoming an al-Qaeda base — is no longer salient, because Pakistan has been, and is, its base.
The death of bin Laden is understandably prompting a reexamination of America’s engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan from all angles. At a time of fiscal stringency, Congress will cast a particularly sharp eye on the Afghan war’s $100 billion-plus annual cost.
What’s needed is an international conference of all the regional players that have a greater stake in the outcome of the Afghan-Pakistan conflict than does the United States. The participants should include China, Russia and India, and the goal should be a deal that will stabilize the region and provide leeway for whatever rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces the Obama administration determines is prudent.
BRUCE ACKERMAN AND OONA HATHAWAY
Professors of law at Yale University
The basis of our war in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been Congress’s decision, seven days after Sept. 11, 2001, to authorize force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks” and those who harbored them. This was intended to destroy al-Qaeda and deprive it of sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden’s death puts paid to the war authorized by this resolution. Even before his death, the original rationale provided only tenuous support for military operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, CIA Director Leon Panetta said publicly months ago that there were only 50 to 100 members of al-Qaeda in the entire country. Would the resolution continue to apply even if only one al-Qaeda fighter remained?
The resolution also includes those who harbored the attackers. In 2001, this surely included Afghanistan’s Taliban government. But Afghanistan has a different government and constitution now. We are helping President Hamid Karzai fight a variety of insurgents, but it’s a big stretch to say they are all part of the entity that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks or harbored those who did. Is this really the basis of our continuing war in the region?
If the answer is yes, it raises a deeper question: whether we still have a constitutional system of checks and balances on big decisions over war and peace. To his credit, President Obama has not claimed, as Bush administration officials did, that the Constitution gives the president exclusive power over warmaking. He has relied on increasingly strained readings of the 2001 resolution. But with bin Laden’s death, this strategy has degenerated into sheer legal fiction. If Obama’s continuation of the war under radically changed circumstances goes unchallenged, it will transform a limited congressional mandate into a magic wand authorizing a never-ending and worldwide conflict in response to a constantly changing threat.
Now is the time for President Obama to declare victory over those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and return to Congress for a new resolution defining the extent and limits of our military operations as we enter a second decade in the struggle against terrorism.
Former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats on the National Intelligence Council; author of the forthcoming book “The Interrogator,” about his experience leading the interrogation team for a top al-Qaeda detainee.
Osama bin Laden is dead. And so, therefore, is al-Qaeda. U.S. intelligence experts have for years weighed what the consequences for al-Qaeda would be when the United States finally captured (unlikely) or killed (more likely, and much better) Osama bin Laden. The argument turned around varying assessments of what al-Qaeda had become.
The operative view within the intelligence community has been that bin Laden had become a figurehead who had inspired Muslims to wage jihad against the United States. He wildly succeeded in that objective, and al-Qaeda had become a franchise and a movement, with jihadist terrorist groups around the world sometimes acting on Bin Laden’s general guidance but always acting as part of a global jihadist-al-Qaeda “movement.” This view was sometimes fuzzy; at times it held that al-Qaeda “affiliates” acted coherently as part of a movement and at times acted independently, albeit inspired by al-Qaeda “central.” This perspective will argue that bin Laden’s death will not fundamentally change the nature of the jihadist threat. Bin Laden fathered an organization, an ideology and a movement. The threat lives on.
The alternative view (a summary of which I wrote for a national intelligence estimate in 2006, but which was deleted before publication for being too alternative and not supported by enough of the intelligence community) has been that al-Qaeda almost literally is Osama bin Laden. It is his creature and tool; his disciples and murderous idealists have orbited around him, cohered because of his inspiration — and will not long survive his death. It is true that bin Laden’s direct operational control, and the power of al-Qaeda, have been much “degraded” since Sept. 11. Yet al-Qaeda has been competent and ruthless, too, and it has been able nonetheless to maintain its structural and operational integrity.
But this is because of the man. Without bin Laden, we will progressively find that his movement becomes like a hive without its queen: Jihadists will be angry and may seek to sting, but they will lose any global coherence or operational structure. Most al-Qaeda members, and almost all aspiring members, will revert to their former, perhaps angry and idealistic, lives, but as fundamentally directionless young men who will focus on local and regional grievances. What remains of al-Qaeda’s leaders (al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a deeper, more strategic thinker than bin Laden ever was but has always lacked charisma, focused heavily on his own Egypt-centric agenda and spent much of his energy demonstrating a lack of leadership skills) will issue stentorian dispatches and try to carry on for a time. But they also will most likely return to local and regional jihadist concerns. They will progressively recede in influence, increase their bickering and lose their “global” relevance. Al-Qaeda has become less and less relevant among Muslims over the years. The organization’s solution to the frustrations and woes of the world is, fundamentally, death. And most people, non-Muslim and Muslim alike, will in most cases choose life.
This local focus has always been the nature of the jihadist threat. With the sole exception of al-Qaeda — in recent years called “al-Qaeda central” by U.S. intelligence authorities and now, to some extentn of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — jihadists have focused on regional historical and political issues, not attacks on the United States. And now, without Bin Laden’s mystique to hold the only global jihadist organization together, so will we find it to be again. Al-Qaeda, except for its death rattles, died in Abbottabad when a Navy SEAL’s bullet reached Osama bin Laden’s zealous brain.