The Death of Osama Bin Laden, and the Shape of Threats to Come

No American -- or anyone else one who opposes violent, murderous terrorism -- can see Osama Bin Laden’s death as anything but just retribution. We need to be very cautious, however, in assuming that it will now damage Al Qa’ida and other Islamist extremist networks, or that we can predict the political and strategic consequences.

Hopefully, it is a success that will add to the impact of years of other successful attacks on Al Qa’ida, resulting in a sharp reduction of the organization’s capabilities. Hopefully, those who support extremism will not see Bin Laden’s death as a form of martyrdom and an incentive to redouble their efforts and follow in his path.

As President Obama’s statement following Bin Laden’s makes clear, however, it has been nearly ten years. Al Qa’ida has had a long time in which to find alternative leaders, create resilient and dispersed cells and redundant networks, and find alterative locations like Yemen. What might have been a decisive blow in 2001 or 2002 may have far less effect today.

It also seems all too likely that many – if not most -- extremists will still see Bin Laden as having had great success simply because he could continue to challenge the US for nearly ten years after 9/11. It seems all too likely that many will see his death as a form of martyrdom that is more an example to follow than a deterrent to future action. 

Extremists and terrorists are likely to admire in the fact that Osama is reported to have died fighting, and that the US had to destroy one of the helicopters used in the raid. They will take the same comfort if reports are correct that two Bin Laden couriers, and one of Osama Bin Laden's sons, were also killed in fighting the SEALs. They will try to exploit the fact that a woman seems to have died – even though she is reported to have been used as a human shield by one of Bin Laden’s fighters. They will exploit the fact that other women and children were present in the compound.

We don’t know just how many extremists will take such stands, but we do know that the success of any blow in the war against terrorism depends on its impact on current and potential terrorists – not the relief the vast majority of the world and of Muslims will feel at Osama’s death.

We need to face the fact that all of the social, political and religious forces that triggered the terrorist and extremist threat are still in place. Moreover, they have been reinforced in extremist eyes by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the political upheavals in the Middle East and other Muslim states, and by anger at both local regimes and the US and other Western states for what all too many in the region perceive as attacks on Arabs and Islam. It is very unlikely that Bin Laden’s death, or even the destruction of Al Qa’ida, can end or seriously undercut the broader threat from extremism and terrorism.

There is also a serious risk that those in Pakistan that oppose all US action in Pakistan and against the Taliban will react with a new wave of hostility to the fact that the US conducted the attack and did so on Pakistani soil. There was no way to keep this covert, and President Obama had no choice about revealing what happened in his statement on the attack:

“Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden.  It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.  And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”

“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

This explains why the President wisely attempted to defuse tensions with Islam and Pakistan by also stating that,

“…we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam.  I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.  Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”

 “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was.  That is what we’ve done.  But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.  Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.”

“Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts.  They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations.  And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

The Pakistani Foreign Office has also helped by issuing its own statement that,

“Earlier today, President Obama telephoned President Zardari on the successful US operation which resulted in killing of Osama bin Ladin.

Osama bin Ladin’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community including Pakistan to fight and eliminate terrorism. It constitutes a major setback to terrorist organizations around the world. Al-Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan. Scores of Al-Qaeda sponsored terrorist attacks resulted in deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistani men, women and children. Almost, 30,000 Pakistani civilians lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years. More than 5,000 Pakistani security and armed forces officials have been martyred in Pakistan’s campaign against Al-Qaeda, other terrorist organizations and affiliates.

Pakistan has played a significant role in efforts to eliminate terrorism. We have had extremely effective intelligence sharing arrangements with several intelligence agencies including that of the US. We will continue to support international efforts against terrorism. It is Pakistan’s stated policy that it will not allow its soil to be used in terrorist attacks against any country. Pakistan’s political leadership, parliament, state institutions and the whole nation are fully united in their resolve to eliminate terrorism.”

The reality is, however, that these words can only reach moderates, not the minority of extremists and certainly not the even smaller minority of terrorists and would be martyrs. We still need to be very careful about what Bin Laden’s death will mean for relations with Pakistan and for the war in Afghanistan. No words from the US will be enough for those in Pakistan who already see every US action as a threat. The circumstances of Bin Laden’s death also make it clear that the US still has serious problems in getting support from Pakistan, and are yet another reflection of tensions between the US and Pakistan over the failures of the ISI and Pakistani military to act on their own. It was US SEAL teams that had to use helicopters to enter Pakistan, and carry out the operation on the ground. The attack on Bin Laden did not occur in some remote area outside Pakistani control, but in a compound in a large city whose population is estimated to be well over numbers from 300,000, and some 40 miles from a major Pakistani population center like Islamabad. It is also a city occupied by a brigade from Pakistani Army's second division, the location of the Army's military academy, and major retirement center for Pakistani officers.

Bin Laden’s death will also raise new questions about whether the Afghan war can really put an end to Al Qa’ida and other terrorist sanctuaries, and lead some of those who oppose the war to state that the US and its allies should now withdraw. At least one senior member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has already called for US withdrawal, and less biased voices are now likely to ask whether the Afghan War is really the most effective way of defeating a mix of terrorist groups and threats that is nearly global in scope. It will take weeks – and possibly months – before we can understand just how much we have gained in strategic terms in the war in Afghanistan and our deeply troubled relations with Pakistan. It will take at least that long to determine how successful Al Qa’ida will be in finding some form of revenge and in conducting dramatic attacks to show it is still a threat and still powerful. Moreover, Al Qa’ida affiliates throughout the world will seek to act as well, and this might trigger a new wave of attacks from groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In short, Osama dead is certainly still far better than Osama alive, but it is only one event in a long war that will have to be fought for many more years and on many fronts. We need caution and patience in dealing with such an event, and we will need a continuing commitment to fighting the terrorist threat.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy