Osama bin Laden’s death in a raid by U.S. troops on his compound north of Islamabad, Pakistan, is both a symbolic and real blow to al-Qaeda. But will it mean an end to terrorism or to al-Qaeda’s hold on the imaginations of radicals in the Middle East and elsewhere? Most likely it won’t, according to five CFR experts who weighed in on the subject.
While bin Laden’s killing sends a strong signal to extremists, it doesn’t spell an end to their efforts, particularly those enabled by Pakistan, says CFR President Richard N. Haass. In contrast, Ray Takeyh argues that the revolts in the Middle East suggest that while bin Laden’s death is a laudable triumph of U.S. efforts, the region has moved on and bin Laden is largely a symbol of a passing era. Robert Danin agrees with Takeyh, noting that many moderate Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East will be pleased at bin Laden’s demise, although some extremists will want to resurrect him as a symbolic martyr. That impulse could be especially strong in countries like Yemen, where the government is weak and vulnerable, says Steven A. Cook, who also believes most Arabs are interested in transitioning to more open political systems. Max Boot warns that maintaining a "comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign" in Afghanistan is crucial to preventing the country from falling back into terrorist hands. Daniel Markey observes that while bin Laden’s death could be an opportunity to improve U.S.-Pakistan relations, it’s more likely to exacerbate tensions than to enhance cooperation. On the legal basis for the attack, John Bellinger says the killing was lawful under both U.S. domestic law and international law.
The killing of Osama bin Laden constitutes a significant victory over global terrorism. But it is a milestone, not a turning point, in what remains an ongoing struggle without a foreseeable end.
The significance of what was accomplished stems from bin Laden’s symbolic importance. He has been an icon, one representing the ability to strike with success against the United States and the West. That icon is now gone.
There is also the demonstration effect of what U.S. Special Forces are able to do. It sends a clear message to terrorists that they are at least as vulnerable as those they would seek to hurt.
But any celebration needs to be tempered by two realities. The first is that bin Laden’s demise is in no way to be equated with the demise of terrorism. There is no time for a V-T Day--a Victory over Terrorism Day celebration.
Terrorism is a decentralized phenomenon--in its funding, planning, and execution. Removing bin Laden does not end the threat. There are successors in al-Qaeda--and successors in autonomous groups operating out of Yemen, Somalia, and other countries. So terrorism will continue. Indeed, it could even grow somewhat worse in the short run as there are sure to be those who will want to show that they can still strike against the West.
The second reason for responding with caution to this welcome development is that it underscores yet again that Pakistan, home of some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, is decidedly less than a full partner. Some parts of the government there are sympathetic to terrorism and unwilling to act against it; others are simply unable to given a lack of capacity. This reality is unlikely to change. As a result, the sort of independent operation carried out against bin Laden is likely to be the rule as much as the exception going forward.
The death of Osama bin Laden delivered another symbolic blow to two interrelated concepts that have done much to bedevil the West: Islamic radicalism wedded to terrorism as its most suitable expression. The Arab Spring had already done much to discredit bin Laden’s foundational ideology. Al-Qaeda had long denounced pluralism and representation as fraudulent conceits of the West. Granting power to men who presumably knew the mind of God, violence against the West and imposition of severe cultural restrictions were its only offerings to the region’s restive youth. There was little room in this vision for political emancipation, diversity of opinion, or economic empowerment. From Tunisia to Yemen, the Arab masses rejected this ideology through word and deed. The Arab revolt is a denunciation of radicalism in all its hues: whether autocrats ruling in the name of modernization or Islamists pledging redemption through terror.
As the region moved beyond bin Laden’s ideology, it also left behind his methods. Al-Qaeda had professed that the only means of displacing Arab despots was to unleash terror against their presumed patron--the United States. The "enemy abroad" was the focal point of its wrath. Yet the Arab masses proved that the likes of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine-el-Abidine Ben Ali can actually be overthrown through peaceful mobilization of people power. Islamist terror only offered the Arab strongmen a rationale for maintaining power, as they conveniently brandished the specter of Islamist power as a justification for their autocracy. Ironically, al-Qaeda, its ideology, and its terrorism may have prolonged the lifespan of an order it professed to despise.
In the end, the Middle East has moved beyond bin Laden. Though his death should certainly be celebrated as a triumph of painstaking efforts by the U.S. government, he can only be remembered as a discredited relic of an increasingly vanishing era.
Bin Laden’s death brings to a close the decade-long search for the mastermind of the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. As such, it will mark a significant turning point, though not an end, to the U.S.-declared "War Against Terror." The significance of bin Laden’s departure, especially given al-Qaeda’s decentralized structure, will likely be more symbolic than operational. Terrorism did not begin with al-Qaeda, nor will it end with al-Qaeda weakened, though weakened it will be. Nonetheless, bin Laden’s death deals a blow to those who took inspiration from the Saudi-born terrorist leader, and demonstrates that the United States remains a superpower with global reach.
In the Middle East, bin Laden’s death will serve as a sort of Rorschach test. Many moderate Sunni Arabs and Shiites will welcome his departure from the scene, some explicitly, others tacitly. Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority welcomed bin Laden’s death as a victory for moderation, while his soon-to-be partner Hamas denounced the killing. Israel, long in the vanguard in the fight against terrorism, sees vindication of its own assertive and often creative approach against terrorist leaders worldwide. In Abu Dhabi today, the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates met and declined to comment on bin Laden’s death. Nor have the Saudis commented so far. The fear that bin Laden instilled for some is likely to live on.
Given the unrest sweeping the Arab world, bin Laden’s death is likely to be less significant to the people of the Middle East than otherwise would have been the case. For many Arabs, bin Laden had represented a violent reaction to the Arab’s powerlessness and failure to measure up to the West. Yet even for many who had sympathized with his tactics, bin Laden had become an embarrassment, having helped solidify a global image of the Arabs as terrorists. The Arab uprisings now sweeping the region are an attempt to forge a new Arab image and identity.
Now that Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Oman are taking matters into their own hands, bin Laden may well be forgotten more quickly than he is in the United States, where he murdered thousands of Americans and perforated the nation’s sense that international affairs take place abroad and not at home. Yet for a small but significant group of bin Laden’s followers, he will be a symbolic martyr whose death will now need to be avenged.
Osama bin Laden’s death is an enormously symbolic event for the Arab world. The Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader represented a worldview shared by a small but influential group of Arabs. In this season of change in the Middle East, there will no doubt be those who seek to carry on bin Laden’s jihad, but the demands of Tunisian, Egyptians, Syrians, Bahrainis, and others to live in democratic societies suggest that bin Laden’s ideological reach was quite limited.
Even as al-Qaeda and its theoreticians welcomed the recent demise of Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak--and would probably like to see Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad go, too--the political change in the Middle East is not good for the al-Qaeda franchise.
If countries in the region manage to make the transition to more open political systems, individuals will have the opportunity to resolve their grievances through political institutions that preclude them from taking up arms against their own states or the United States. More important, it is clear that the vast majority of Arabs do not share bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s view that the only legitimate authority on earth is God’s. They support the sovereignty of manmade law, so long as it is just.
That said, Hamas’s quick condemnation of the U.S. military operation that brought bin Laden to justice, and the fact that extremists are likely to seek revenge, suggests that there is still fertile ground for al-Qaeda in the Middle East and beyond. At the very least, al-Qaeda affiliates can find opportunity to set down roots in places like Yemen, and perhaps Libya and Syria, where Arab leaders have lost their grip but society has not fallen into Somalia-like chaos.
What does the death of Osama bin Laden mean for the war in Afghanistan?
The positive impact is obvious: bin Laden had a close alliance with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. No doubt many Taliban and associated operatives (e.g., in the Haqqani network) viewed bin Laden as a great holy warrior who charted the way forward in the battle against infidels, crusaders, and Zionists. His death could, therefore, strike a significant psychological blow against insurgents. It may also have more direct repercussions. If bin Laden was still acting, as he had in the past, as a key intermediary between the Taliban and its wealthy Persian Gulf backers, then his death would clearly interrupt the flow of funding.
But oddly enough, bin Laden’s death may also be a setback for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, at least in the West. In justifying his surge in Afghanistan, President Obama has put too much rhetorical weight on the need to counter al-Qaeda. The president has repeatedly claimed that all we were doing in Afghanistan was denying al-Qaeda the ability to use that country as a sanctuary. With bin Laden dead, many Americans may decide that the threat from al-Qaeda is also gone and that we can afford to draw down in Afghanistan. Not so.
Whatever al-Qaeda’s fate (and it is too early to tell whether it will be able to survive its "emir’s" demise), other Islamist terrorist groups will not be significantly hindered. This includes groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani network, all at least as virulent as al-Qaeda if lacking, so far, its global ambition. A comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is still vital to prevent that country from falling to Osama bin Laden’s fellow travelers.
Moreover, by maintaining a large presence in Afghanistan, the United States can also project power into Pakistan--as Navy SEALs showed by swooping down on bin Laden’s compound. Given how unstable Pakistan remains (instability that may well be exacerbated by the fallout from this raid), it is imperative that we have bases nearby, and no location is as convenient or secure as Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden’s death comes at a time of intense crisis between the United States and Pakistan. Its repercussions have the potential to launch the bilateral relationship off a cliff, or to bring U.S. and Pakistani strategic interests into better alignment.
Some Pakistanis, already enraged over U.S. drone strikes and the Raymond Davis affair, are more concerned about the U.S. raid in Abbottabad being a violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty than they are about bin Laden’s death. If terrorists launch a wave of reprisal attacks, Pakistanis will be on the receiving end. Some will undoubtedly question whether their security interests were well served by bin Laden’s killing.
Pakistan’s leadership will have doubts about continued U.S. engagement in their region, what with bin Laden dead and a phased military withdrawal from Afghanistan taking shape. For all their frustrations with Washington, they also fear abandonment.
Many Americans, convinced that Pakistan has done less than it might to confront radical militants and terrorists, see their worst suspicions confirmed by the fact that bin Laden lived in a large, well-protected compound right under the Pakistani military’s nose. Either Pakistan’s intelligence service is terribly incompetent, fatally compromised, or both, raising questions about its utility as a partner.
Americans and Pakistanis, therefore, have reasons to give in to their mistrust. A more constructive outcome is possible, but it will require both sides to think about long-term interests rather than near-term frustrations. If handled smartly, bin Laden’s death could mark a major reversal of momentum for extremists and their supporters throughout South Asia.
That reversal would have to start in Islamabad, where too many military and intelligence officials have actively or passively supported militants and terrorists as a means to project influence into Afghanistan and India. They will need to rethink such strategies. Recognizing that no terrorist group can escape Washington’s reach, Pakistan should now lend its unconditional support to confronting and eliminating the wide range of terrorists operating from its soil.
But that would not be enough. Bin Laden’s death hardly clears the way for disengagement from Pakistan. Disengagement is likely to enable the rise of a new, perhaps even more dangerous, generation of terrorists. Instead, America’s strategy for the post-bin Laden era must be a far greater commitment to helping Pakistan overcome the political, economic and security conditions that make it an appealing safe haven for terrorists like bin Laden. Such an effort will be costly, and it will take years.
Unfortunately, bin Laden’s death is more likely to exacerbate tensions between Washington and Islamabad than to encourage such farsighted cooperation. But this would be a tragic waste of an historic opportunity to write a more positive chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
The U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was lawful under both U.S. domestic law and international law. The U.S. government’s legal rationale will be similar to arguments used by both the Bush and Obama administrations to justify drone strikes against other al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere. The Authorization to Use Military Force Act of September 18, 2001, authorizes the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against persons who authorized, planned, or committed the 9/11 attacks.
The killing is not prohibited by the longstanding assassination prohibition in Executive Order 12333 because the action was a military action in the ongoing U.S. armed conflict with al-Qaeda and it is not prohibited to kill specific leaders of an opposing force. The assassination prohibition also does not apply to killings in self-defense. The executive branch will also argue that the action was permissible under international law both as a permissible use of force in the U.S. armed conflict with al-Qaeda and as a legitimate action in self-defense, given that bin Laden was clearly planning additional attacks.
Some critics of the administration’s legal theory that the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda might--if they were consistent with their past criticisms--argue that the United States did not have a right to use military force against bin Laden outside of Afghanistan, and that Washington should instead have sent an extradition request to Pakistan or asked the Pakistani government to arrest bin Laden. But such traditional critics may prefer to remain silent in this instance.
In addition, under the UN Charter, the United States would normally be prohibited from using force inside Pakistan without obtaining Pakistan’s consent. It is not clear whether the Obama administration received the consent of the Pakistani government to use force inside Pakistan in this case, but the Pakistani government appears at least to have consented after the fact to this potential infringement of its sovereignty.