The triumphal news of Bin Laden’s killing yesterday has also called into question—if not shattered—much of the conventional wisdom about al-Qaeda’s leader and the movement he founded. First, the assumption was that he was hiding in a cave in some isolated mountain range, cut off equally from his supporters and from the creature comforts that make life as a fugitive more bearable. Yet we learn that he’s been living a stone’s throw from the Pakistani capital, both in comfort and relative anonymity. This in turn calls into question some of the assumptions about the aid and assistance he doubtlessly would have needed to receive from a variety of plotters to be located right under the nose of the government and its military and intelligence authorities. Also, the assumption was that Bin Laden was in such isolation and so cut off from communication that he’d nearly been reduced to a figurehead, a marginal character, in al-Qaeda’s operations and destiny. His presence in an urban hub, presumably with a variety of modes of contact, calls into question the supposedly hands-off, irrelevant role he had been believed to play in al-Qaeda’s strategy and perhaps even day-to-day operations. Indeed, it may have been his active participation in key al-Qaeda decision-making and operational matters that allowed us to track him to his hideout—there must have been an unusual number people coming and going, functioning essentially as couriers. It may thus be that he’s had much more of a role in al-Qaeda than we believed.
Another piece of conventional wisdom that must now be left an open question is how effective decapitation is in terms of ending a terrorist a campaign. Historically, the record is not a good one. During Algeria’s war of independence in the late 1950s, the French seized the entire leadership of the National Liberation Front, yet they discovered that the FLN was much more networked than they thought, and that even the decapitation of the entire group leadership did not have had much of an effect. The FLN, of course, went on to triumph and attain Algerian independence just four years later. In 2004, the Israelis delivered a one-two punch against Hamas’ equivalent of Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when they killed in succession Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of Hamas, and then a month later Abdel Aziz Rantisi, his deputy and successor—yet Hamas is stronger today than it was seven years ago. In 2003, of course, we captured Saddam Hussein, and many assumed that the insurgency in Iraq would end. In fact, it continued—and indeed escalated—for another four years and lingers on today. Admittedly, the killing of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 was an important setback to al-Qaeda’s ambitions in Iraq, but even that did not signal the group’s death knell as it continues to fight on today.
Conventional wisdom from al-Qaeda’s side has been that Bin Laden has long claimed—going back even to a prominent 1998 interview—that he welcomed his death because it was certain to be one of a martyr and therefore that it would inspire a thousand more Osamas. He was convinced his message would have greater resonance in his death than it did in the later years of his life. However, that assumption was predicated on al-Qaeda having an open field with respect to public opinion across the Muslim world and immediate media access and attention. Today, however, al-Qaeda is confronted by the striking daily news emanating from the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East. Hence, a single dramatic development in Libya or Syria threatens to knock Osama bin Laden and whatever significance his message of martyrdom may still have off the front pages.