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.
Somewhat counterintuitively, many have argued in recent weeks that the Arab Spring has heralded al-Qaeda’s own irrelevance anyway, but the problem is precisely where al-Qaeda is strongest at periphery of the Arab Spring and therefore may only have ephemeral effect at best. Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps parts of North Africa remain key operational areas where al Qaeda’s strength has yet to dissipate. Indeed, the attack credited to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Morocco last week, that killed 16 persons, including 14 Western tourists, illustrates the movement’s resilience and continued viability and operational capacity. And the conventional wisdom was that the upsurge in the drone attacks was having a decisive impact not only on al-Qaeda in Pakistan but also on the al-Qaeda movement as a whole. The problem, as the DCIA, DNI and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center have all recently said, is that some of the al-Qaeda affiliates or clones have become either more powerful or just as threatening to the U.S. than the parent body. Bin Laden’s death may be a serious blow to al-Qaeda central, and indeed whatever corporate secession plan it no doubt had has been systemically weakened by three years of sustained drone attacks targeting al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. But the real question is whether al-Qaeda affiliates—like al-Qaeda in Yemen—who are unaffected by the attrition of al-Qaeda central in Pakistan—will themselves also be significantly affected by Bin Laden’s death. All these considerations raise important questions we don’t yet know the answers to and make it impossible to determine the long-term effects of Bin Laden’s killing.
We can certainly expect acts of retribution, vengeance, frustration and punishment directed against the U.S. in the coming weeks and perhaps months. The questions here are twofold: Might not al-Qaeda and its allies embrace the same highly effective social networking technologies and techniques that have so galvanized the people of North Africa and the Middle East in recent months to present us with a far more diffuse, challenging, more difficult to anticipate and indeed to track threat from unaffiliated or only marginally affiliated persons associated with the al-Qaeda movement who might be easily and readily mobilized in real time to violently vent their frustration over their ideological leaders death? The potential for these smaller, independent-type of operations to provide a potential smoke-screen for a more serious attack, perpetrated by core al-Qaeda, cannot be discounted. This would be a useful way of distracting our attention from the potentially larger, more serious, threats by preoccupying and consuming the attention of intelligence and law enforcement and the military on lower level threats. At the same time, the question remains which group or leader will seek to use the vacuum created by Bin Laden’s demise as an opportunity to step into his shoes, take up his mantle of jihad by demonstrating their capacity for violence on a scale perhaps not equal to Bin Laden’s in the 9/11 attacks, but of potentially great consequence and pain to ourselves. We need to view the past twenty-four hours’ events as a significant victory, a major battle, and perhaps a turning point in what remains indisputably a long war.