One year after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, the threat of al-Qaeda remains, but the numerous associated movements are "less focused squarely on hitting the United States," says Linda Robinson, a CFR adjunct senior fellow for national security. "Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa are the areas outside of South Asia that are fertile ground for AQAM (AQ-associated movements), but these are generally entwined with local issues," she says. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship, badly damaged by the U.S. raid on bin Laden on its sovereign territory, is in crisis, and the bin Laden raid has made it more difficult to cooperate on Afghan border issues, Robinson says.
What has been the biggest impact of bin Laden’s death in terms of U.S. security?
Although declassified documents make clear that bin Laden was still engaged operationally in terms of giving guidance to his lieutenants up until the time of his death, the greatest impact of his death has been symbolic rather than on the operational capacity of al-Qaeda.
The so-called al-Qaeda-associated movements are more entwined with local conflicts, grievances, and causes--[and] less focused squarely on hitting the United States, as al-Qaeda was.
The death of bin Laden removed al-Qaeda’s primary symbol and the recruiting and messaging power that he wielded. Al-Qaeda is a less potent symbol now that he is dead. Organizationally, al-Qaeda proper has been decimated, but as a movement it has metastasized. The so-called al-Qaeda-associated movements are more entwined with local conflicts, grievances, and causes--[and] less focused squarely on hitting the United States, as al-Qaeda was. [In] the case with Anwar Awlaki of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula movement, [it] was a U.S. citizen who inspired others to attack the United States, such as Nidal Hasan and the Christmas Day bomber.
Is it possible to measure the impact on the Afghan war theater?
The most direct impact of bin Laden’s death on Afghanistan was actually the crisis the Abbottabad raid caused in the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and the spillover effects from that. It threw the Pakistan military and the political system into crisis, causing Pakistan to react with more anti-Americanism and more hostility and suspicion along the border. Attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan quadrupled last year, though they are down again now. So the net effect was to make cross-border cooperation more difficult and increase Pakistan’s tendency to pursue its own agenda. That includes things like the Haqqani network’s attacks in September in Kabul on ISAF and the U.S. embassy, and the giant truck bomb in Wardak against the U.S. coalition base in Sayed Abad.
Where would you place the threat of al-Qaeda? Is this still all about Afghanistan/Pakistan or has it morphed?
As noted already, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa are the areas outside of South Asia that are fertile ground for AQAM (AQ-associated movements), but these are generally entwined with local issues. Yemen epitomizes this type of complex phenomenon with tribal conflicts, secessionist tendencies, a weak or failing state, an autocrat facing off against a citizens’ movement --in sum, a complex problem set that requires more than a narrow counterterrorism approach, in my view.
It is Pakistan that is the cause for greatest concern because al-Qaeda there is mixed up with a stew of various insurgent groups that do actively combine forces and cooperate on an operational level.
U.S. officials estimate that maybe 100 AQ fighters come and go from Afghanistan across the Pakistan border. Afghanistan is not much of a safe haven for al-Qaeda, though it still has some distance to go to become stable and capable of defending itself against attempts to reestablish an al-Qaeda safe haven. Most Taliban fighters on the ground are not directly connected to the al-Qaeda organization, and it is possible that at some point the Taliban senior leadership will find it in its interest to repudiate its formal ties to al-Qaeda. It is Pakistan that is the cause for greatest concern because al-Qaeda there is mixed up with a stew of various insurgent groups that do actively combine forces and cooperate on an operational level.
In the past year has there been a rethinking about a major shift in U.S. counterterrorism resources, and if so, from where to where?
It will continue to focus on AFPAK and on the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa. But the Arab Spring has some interesting possibilities from the perspective of radical Islamists.
How would you assess the U.S.-Pakistan relationship a year later?
It is in crisis. Things could get worse before they get better, but one eventual byproduct could be a certain realism that the two countries’ agendas don’t fundamentally coincide, which may clear the way for a more pragmatic definition of cooperation. So if diplomacy works, we may eventually wind up with a realistic middle ground between a purely expedient "transactional relationship" and a "strategic partnership" that was probably too aspirational.
What does U.S. counterterrorism need to look like to meet the threat of a post-bin Laden world?
Counterterrorism policy will gradually move away from a unilateralist emphasis to a more cooperative one. Unilateral counterterrorism is justifiable for the targeting of the bin Ladens of the world, but lower order threats require a different approach.