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A Blow to al-Qaeda

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
May 2, 2011

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Almost ten years after al-Qaeda terrorists slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday (NYT) in a U.S. operation sixty miles from Pakistan capital Islamabad and later buried at sea. The demise of the fifty-four-year-old Saudi-born terrorist (BostonGlobe), announced late last night by U.S. President Barack Obama, caused outpourings of celebrations in New York, Washington, and elsewhere; buoyed the U.S. stock market (WSJ); and led to warnings of retaliation on radical websites. It also generated a flood of opinion about how bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. troops might affect the war on terror, relations with Pakistan, perceptions of U.S. power around the world, and the 2012 presidential campaign.

"The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda," President Obama said in his televised address from the White House. "Justice has been done."

The raid on bin Laden's compound, not far from a Pakistani military base and training academy, is seen by many commentators as "a vindication of several difficult choices (RealClearWorld) President Obama and President Bush made, often risking their own political capital." On his New York Times blog, columnist Nicholas Kristof hailed the operation, which had been in the planning stages since August 2010, writing, "This sends a message that you mess with America at your peril, and that there will be consequences for a terror attack on the United States." In a New Yorker blog, Jon Lee Anderson adds that al-Qaeda is weakened, "perhaps terminally. With the death of their leader, the will of the many bin Laden wannabees out there in Pakistan and Yemen and Nottingham and wherever should be diminished--because one of the things that fueled them in the first place was his notional invincibility."

Bin Laden's death in Abbottabad--where he was hiding in plain sight in a mansion surrounded by thick walls surmounted with barbed wire--will likely exacerbate an already strained and mistrustful relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Pakistani officials have long denied that bin Laden was hiding in their country, and the United States has given Pakistan "more than $1 billion a year (NYT) for almost a decade for counterterrorism operations whose chief aim was the killing or capture of bin Laden, who slipped across the border from Afghanistan after the American invasion." The government of neighboring India also views bin Laden's death in Abbottabad as confirmation that Pakistan is a safe haven (Reuters) for various terrorist groups and that its government is playing a double game in offering sanctuary while denying that it is doing so.

Governments around the world issued statements of praise and congratulations (CNN), and in Washington, congressional members from both parties (Politico) were united in their jubilation. However, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, condemned the killing and described bin Laden as a mujahid, or holy warrior, and several radical groups are calling for retaliation (Reuters). Moreover, the fragmentation of al-Qaeda means that it still has the ability to launch attacks, and its philosophy now is "one man, one bomb," as Ahmed Rashid writes. Still, the consensus is that while al-Qaeda might not be down for the count, it certainly has been dealt a blow. And for now, the Obama administration, criticized for indecision in Libya (Politico) and elsewhere, is savoring a triumphant moment as it looks to the 2012 presidential race.

Additional Analysis:

The U.S.-engineered killing of Osama bin Laden sends encouraging signals, but the threat of terrorism, enabled by Pakistan, persists, writes CFR's Richard N. Haass.

Bin Laden's death dealt a blow to al-Qaeda, but the events of this year have shown the Arab masses have emphatically rejected the terror group's ideology as they seek democratic reforms, writes CFR's Ray Takeyh.

Foreign Affairs has a collection of articles on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

A Washington Post blog looks at the political consequences of bin Laden's death.

Background:

A New York Times obituary profiles bin Laden's life, his mission, and his acts of terrorism.

This CFR Backgrounder profiles al-Qaeda.

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