Even before the celebrations a year ago had ended, terrorism experts were debating the strategic significance of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs. Some argued that bin Laden would prove irreplaceable to al Qaeda; others claimed he had been in hiding so long he was operationally and strategically irrelevant to the war on terror. Of course, it was too soon to know for sure.
At a year’s remove from the Abbottabad raid, it is possible to make some initial judgments about bin Laden’s operational role in al Qaeda, the prospects for the strategic defeat of the terrorist network, and the implications of the raid for the broader struggle against jihadist terrorism.
Leaked reports of the files seized at the compound (significant portions of the cache remain highly classified) suggest that a decade after 9/11 bin Laden remained better connected to his deputies and allies than previously imagined. He was corresponding with Ayman al Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, and Lashkar e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, among others. Bin Laden was kept informed of the operational plans for the major al Qaeda plots of the past decade, including the 7/7 London subway attack (2005) and the failed plot to bomb the New York City subway system (2009). Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen concluded that bin Laden “was very active in terms of leading” and “very active in terms of operations.”
Or was he? Although bin Laden was aware of these plots, no clear evidence has been released that he directed the planning; he may simply have been kept informed. Nor is it clear that anyone heeded his calls for attacks on U.S. railroads and the assassination of President Obama and General David Petraeus. David Ignatius has described bin Laden as a “lion in winter,” and one U.S. official quoted in a McClatchy report last June called him “the cranky old uncle that people weren’t listening to.” In the end, bin Laden’s operational importance to al Qaeda may lie in the eye of the beholder.
From the history of manhunts, we know that destroying the fugitive’s support network is as important strategically as killing or capturing the individual himself in cases where the network could carry on the struggle without him. To its credit, the Obama administration has successfully targeted other key al Qaeda leaders. In the past year, U.S. drone strikes have killed Atiyah Abd-al Rahman (the new number two), Ilyas Kashmiri (arguably its most effective operational leader), and Anwar al-Awlaki (its most dangerous propagandist). The success of the “drone war” in Pakistan’s tribal areas—which by some accounts has killed 75 percent of al Qaeda’s senior leadership—has impeded the network’s ability to communicate and hence plan and execute attacks against the United States. As a result, various administration officials have claimed we are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda.
Even if we are successful in severely degrading bin Laden’s organization, however, al Qaeda writ large is far from finished. The most dangerous plots on American soil—the “underwear bomber” (2009) and the failed Times Square bombing (2010)—were initiated by al Qaeda affiliates and allies, whose operations have not abated since Abbottabad. Michael Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before Congress in February 2011—just three months before Abbottabad—that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula posed “probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.”
Moreover, the ultimate effect of the Arab Spring on al Qaeda remains uncertain. While the overthrow of Arab autocrats through popular uprisings rather than violent jihad undermines a key tenet of bin Laden’s ideology, it also may weaken the security apparatuses that for years suppressed many terrorist cells throughout the Middle East. There are already signs of al Qaeda-affiliated resurgences in Libya and Yemen, with the Assad regime’s murderous suppression of antigovernment demonstrations creating still other opportunities for jihadists.
Although it is unclear whether a loose constellation of affiliates will pose the same strategic threat to America as the centrally controlled network that initiated the African embassy bombings (1998), the attack on the USS Cole (2000), and the 9/11 attacks (2001), it is evident the demise of bin Laden and the attrition of Al Qaeda Central have not eliminated Salafist terrorism.
In the end, Osama bin Laden’s death was indisputably a boost for U.S. morale in the war on terror and a triumph of justice over evil. President Obama deserves credit for launching the raid, even if it is disconcerting that so many of his handpicked advisers opposed it. But regardless of how much the president’s reelection campaign may trumpet that successful operation over the next six months, the drone strikes against al Qaeda’s broader network and the leaders of affiliated terror groups will likely prove more significant. It is President Obama’s decision to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than reverting to a pre-9/11 law enforcement mentality—that is, his continuation of the policy initiated by the Bush administration—that may prove strategically decisive.
Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security Council official and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.