The Significance of Bin Laden’s Killing

by Greg McNeal

The killing of Osama Bin Laden is no doubt a significant victory in the conflict with al Qaeda (see Michael Lewis’ post here).  However, contrary to Peter Bergen’s assertion that “Killing bin Laden is the end of the war on terror. There is no one to replace him in Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was the guy who fought against the Soviet Union and the United States. No one in the network is like that..” I’m not convinced.

But don’t take my word for it, the jihadist’s are not convinced either, just consider what they are saying in the jihadist forums:

  • “We were not fighting for Osama. We were fighting for Allah. The Jihad will continue even if the Amir [leader] is Shaheed [martyred]!!”

  • “Those who fought for shaykh usaamah, know that shaykh usaamah has passed away, but those who fought for Allaah, know that Allaah is alive and will never die”.

  • “a million new bin Ladens will be born! And the flag of jihad will be raised! Inshallah”.

The President declared in his speech that killing Bin Laden was his top priority upon taking office, this differs a bit from his statements on January 15, 2009, when he noted that killing Bin Laden wasn’t essential, rather keeping al Qaeda on the run was the key to strategic success.  The linked story admittedly notes the importance placed on capturing or killing Bin Laden, but it’s set in a broader strategic context that required placing pressure on the entire al Qaeda network.  That network, despite the killing of Bin Laden, still exists.

As Jason Burke noted in a 2004 piece for Foreign Policy entitled Think Again: Al Qaeda (firewalled):

“Capturing or Killing Bin Laden Will Deal a Severe Blow to Al Qaeda”

Wrong. Even for militants with identifiable ties to bin Laden, the death of the “sheik” will make little difference in their ability to recruit people. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently acknowledged as much when he questioned in an internal Pentagon memo whether it was possible to kill militants faster than radical clerics and religious schools could create them. In practical terms, bin Laden now has only a very limited ability to commission acts of terror, and his involvement is restricted to the broad strategic direction of largely autonomous cells and groups. Most intelligence analysts now consider him largely peripheral.

This turn of events should surprise no one. Islamic militancy predates bin Laden’s activities. He was barely involved in the Islamic violence of the early 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, and Kashmir. His links to the 1993 World Trade Center attack were tangential. There were no al Qaeda training camps during the early 1990s, although camps run by other groups churned out thousands of highly trained fanatics. Even when bin Laden was based in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it was often Islamic groups and individuals who sought him out for help in finding resources for preconceived attacks, not vice versa. These days, Islamic groups can go to other individuals, such as Jordanian activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up his al Tauhid group in competition with bin Laden (rather than, as is frequently claimed, in alliance with him) to obtain funds, expertise, or other logistical assistance.

Bin Laden still plays a significant role in the movement as a propagandist who effectively exploits modern mass communications. It is likely that the United States will eventually apprehend bin Laden and that this demonstration of U.S. power will demoralize many militants. However, much depends on the manner in which he is captured or killed. If, like deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he surrenders without a fight, which is very unlikely, many followers will be deeply disillusioned. If he achieves martyrdom in a way that his cohorts can spin as heroic, he will be an inspiration for generations to come. Either way, bin Laden’s removal from the scene will not stop Islamic militancy.

That Islamic militancy importantly includes other al Qaeda off-shoots such as al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.  In February 2011, Michael Leiter, National Counterterrorism Center Director said in testimony before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee “I actually consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization, is probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”

I’m hopeful that Bin Laden’s death spells the demise of al Qaeda, but hope alone won’t change the reality of a global movement dedicated to attacking America.  Others may see the same thing, but will attribute it to a “military-industrial complex” that makes money off of wars.  Whatever your root cause explanation, this conflict is probably not ending anytime soon.

Cross-posted at LawandTerrorism