The news late last night that Osama bin Laden was killed in a firefight with U.S. armed forces Sunday is surely welcome news to Americans regardless of political affiliation. However, as is true with most major world events, they rarely occur in a vacuum. Therefore we need to look ahead to determine exactly what the fallout will be. That said, here is my initial analysis on OBL’s demise.
1) This is a good thing in and of itself. OBL’s death sends a message to other would-be jihadist leaders that America’s memory and reach remain long. Our armed services, intelligence community, and the Obama administration are to be congratulated on a fine operation. The justice that Americans promised after 9/11 has finally been served.
2) This will strengthen AQ’s regional franchises. While OBL has not been the day-to-day leader making the decisions about AQ’s various field operations around the world, his continued existence was an affront to American power. As long as he lived, he was a standard for our enemies to rally around. His departure has great propaganda value — a value I firmly expect we will fail to capitalize on. But Zawahiri does not have the mojo as it were to fill the void. The leadership vacuum will empower regional leaders who will compete for prominence. The way they will compete is for more violence and bloodshed. Anyone remember Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Iraq AQ franchise? Expect Anwar al-Awlaki of AQAP (Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula) or some other regional leader to assume symbolic control of the movement.
3) OBL’s supporters will be compelled to respond. We should expect that AQ will strike back at America to prove its relevance. There will be dead Americans as a result of OBL’s death. I hope that’s not true and that AQ’s capabilities are so diminished that they no longer pose a threat, but honestly I doubt it. A low-tech swarm attack combining multiple assailants and multiple locations, followed by a demand for the release of KSM, the Blind Sheikh, et al., would be my best guess as to how AQ responds.
4) Pakistan’s duplicity must be addressed. That OBL was living in luxury not far from Pakistan’s capital, rather than in some cave in the northwest tribal areas, says something. And what it says is that OBL has always been a pawn in Pakistan’s double game. OBL could not have existed in such a state without the help and protection of Pakistan’s ISI. While clearly someone gave him up, or at least gave a tip that allowed intelligence to zero in on OBL, the fact that we did not provide warning to Pakistan enabled the success of this operation where notifying them in advance doomed all past missions. Pakistan’s leaders must decide which way they should go, but they will continue their double game (Karzai too!) as long as Obama communicates his intentions to remove American troops from the region.
5) We have still not identified the enemy in terms of national policy. OBL is dead! But the ideology that spawned AQ’s violence and determined the goals he sought to achieve is alive and well. The war on terror has not just been about OBL and AQ’s core. President Bush made that clear right after 9/11. However, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who share OBL’s objectives of reestablishing a global caliphate and imposing shariah while arguing between themselves on timing and tactics, is on a rapid rise. Many polls taken in the region show widespread support for these objectives all across the Muslim world. Meanwhile, any mention of the Islamic doctrines of jihad and the Quranic prescriptions of war have been officially banished, first by the Bush administration and even more so by the Obama administration. Any mention of what drives our enemy has been scrubbed from virtually all of our national security strategy documents. Until we are able to have a national policy identifying who our enemy is in the war on terror, the death of OBL or any of these AQ leaders (and there have been many) will not bring us any closer to an end to Islamic terrorism.
What will be the long-term consequences of OBL’s demise? As the Zen master said, “We’ll see”.