What Bin Laden's death means for U.S. policy

For most of the past decade, Osama bin Laden defined U.S. national security policy. Now that the man behind the 11 September 2001 attacks has finally been brought to justice, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to re-shape the direction of his foreign policy.

On a strategic level, bin Laden's death could help mitigate the very sources of inspiration for Islamist terrorism, especially if no prominent figurehead emerges in his absence.

On the other hand, though, is the possibility that bin Laden's narrative is sufficiently entrenched to make his death insignificant.

By this logic, al Qaeda's affiliates no longer rely on bin Laden for symbolic inspiration, allowing them to continue to operate as before. This would be bin Laden's lasting legacy.

Al-Qaeda's ambiguous, post-bin Laden future has considerable implications for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Because bin Laden's death will do little to change the tactical realities of Islamist terrorism, the operational dimensions of U.S. policy should remain largely unchanged.

Ongoing efforts to target al Qaeda's regional affiliates will continue, and domestic law enforcement officials will continue to monitor and interdict emerging threats within the U.S.

Still, bin Laden's death presents the Obama administration with an historic opportunity to puncture, once and for all, the toxic narrative that drives al-Qaeda's larger movement.

Rhetorical push

In the absence of a new spokesman emerging for the movement, US officials should hammer away at al-Qaeda's underlying premises.

They should continue to highlight the movement's inherent malice and utter senselessness; its ruthless targeting of Muslim civilians; and its futility in achieving societal change in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in light of the ongoing "Arab Spring".

Such a rhetorical push would come at a time when the US is gradually reshaping its political and military engagements with Muslim-majority countries.

This transformation centres around the staged drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Obama administration's measured support for the democratic aspirations of Muslim citizens as they challenge autocratic regimes.

Both of these developments have the potential to undercut al-Qaeda's appeal, which has always been based on generating Muslim resistance to authoritarian regimes and their Western backers.

This type of approach is not certain to bring about the end of al-Qaeda.

But it is doubtful that the U.S. and its partners can meaningfully eliminate the movement without removing its sources of ideological sustenance.

With the death of Bin Laden, the Obama administration now has a chance to accelerate that process.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. Ben Bodurian is a research assistant in the program.

This piece was originally posted as part of the BBC News Viewpoint series at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13261150.


Ben Bodurian