Paul Pillar

Bin Laden, Dead or Alive

[amazon 0743278933 full]Peter Bergen, who is as knowledgeable as anyone about Osama bin Laden, provides an informative status report about the hunt for his subject in an essay adapted from his new book The Longest War. Bergen argues that although the trail of bin Laden has grown cold, it is important to keep going after him. The issues involved are old. When I worked on counterterrorism in the 1990s, a major subject of discussion among those in the business was whether the United States would be better off with bin Laden dead or with him alive. The alternatives were seen as killing him versus capturing him. There was little doubt about the value of taking him out of commission one way or another, and much priority and effort were devoted to doing exactly that. Those efforts, by the way, and the inability to find bin Laden even after he became a target of enormous priority after 9/11, put a lie to the notion one sometimes hears that the U.S. government devoted insufficient attention to bin Laden in the years prior to 9/11. 

Other things being equal, we probably would be better off and Americans would be slightly safer from terrorism if we were able to put bin Laden out of operation. But this is a marginal and non-obvious call, partly because other things are not equal. Priorities compete with other priorities, including ones having to do with counterterrorism. Our resources, our political chits with foreign governments, and the time and attention of our own leaders are all limited. Bergen describes both President Obama and former president Bush as exhibiting “bin Laden fatigue” in the sense of not giving sustained high priority to hunting down the terrorist. But what we have seen with both presidents is less simply a tiring of the hunt and more a reflection of those competing priorities and limited time and attention.

The biggest effects that bin Laden has today on terrorism he would continue to have if he were dead. Bergen refers accurately to bin Laden’s symbolic influence, and it is in matters of symbolism and ideology that his impact is most felt and would continue to be felt even if he no longer had a pulse. The decentralization of radical jihadism has meant that bin Laden’s impact has become more one of symbols and ideas and less one of operational initiative and direction. Just as bin Laden himself invokes the thoughts of past radical Islamist ideologists—such as the 13th and 14th century thinker Ibn Tamiyyah—a dead bin Laden would continue to be invoked as a source of strategy and dogma. Bergen may be right that bin Laden’s ability to stay alive is a morale booster for his fans and followers, but that probably would be offset by the impact of his martyrdom, given the major role that martyrdom plays in the thinking of those followers.

As for the possibility of capturing bin Laden alive—which would raise some of the issues my colleagues and I were discussing in the 1990s—I shudder to think about how the nation would handle the question of what to do with such a prisoner. Consider the discord and controversy over the disposition of other captured terrorists, involving whether to conduct a trial in a civilian court, where the trial would occur, and other issues that have been the occasion for much posturing and partisanship. Multiply that several times and you would have an idea of what we would be facing with an incarcerated bin Laden on our hands.

A potential downside of either killing or capturing bin Laden would be the misleading public sense that Americans had been made significantly safer from terrorism and that counterterrorist efforts could be ramped down as a result. Former National Security Council official Roger Cressey is quoted in Bergen’s piece as saying, “How do we close the 9/11 chapter with him [bin Laden] still out there?” Taking out bin Laden would indeed produce a significant sense of closure—but mainly as a matter of public psychology, not terrorist realities. It would be the same sort of false ending as the “we got him” moment when Saddam Hussein was captured in his spider hole.

So yes, let us continue the hunt for bin Laden, but with the recognition that success in that hunt would not necessarily represent a major increment in the security of Americans and that the hunt should not have more priority than other efforts that might do at least as much to enhance that security.