The death of Osama bin Laden is a major symbolic victory in the war on terror. Not since the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq has the U.S. been able to celebrate such a clear success against the terrorist enemy. This achievement will provide closure for the many lives lost on (and tremendous sacrifices made since) September 11, 2001, an event whose ten-year anniversary arrives in just four months.
There is an important difference between symbolic and material victories, however. Nearly four years transpired between the symbolic victory of Saddam Hussein’s capture in Iraq and the material victory of the Iraq surge. As a result of Saddam’s capture, the morale of the U.S.-led coalition increased. Yet violence spiraled upwards in the following years. Only the change in strategy under the surge policy reduced the attacks and threat from al Qaeda in Iraq.
We now have the opportunity to turn a symbolic victory into a material victory in the war on terror. Al Qaeda and its affiliates will experience some temporary shellshock from the death of their leader, especially given the air of invulnerability bin Laden had acquired since evading death or capture for nearly the last two decades. Bin Laden, however, has likely had little operational role within al Qaeda since 9/11. The next generation of entrepreneurial al Qaeda leaders will, however, sense an opportunity to fill a power vacuum. They will want to achieve the notoriety enjoyed by bin Laden and show that the violent Islamist cause will survive this setback. Each leader will want to prove that his organization or leadership should receive the lion’s share of recruits and fundraising dollars in the wake of bin Laden’s death. These individuals will compete for attention by plotting and engaging in terrorist attacks, some of which may be successful.
These terrorists will be building upon recent gains in an attempt to increase their profiles. Al Qaeda franchises and affiliates have become stronger in the last several years. In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has survived, despite continued attention from U.S. counterterrorism authorities. AQAP has managed to launch two attacks against the U.S.: the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing of a jet over Detroit, and the October 2010 plot that set packages aboard cargo planes. The group now salivates at the ongoing unrest in Yemen, which it will aim to use to increase its stronghold in the eastern portions of the country. In Somalia, the terror group al Shabaab continues to hold sway over much of the country. It launched a successful attack against U.S.-allied Uganda in July 2010. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continues frequent kidnappings and other terrorist work in West Africa. It also believes it can exploit the war in Libya to its advantage.
The details of the operation that killed bin Laden make clear that the greatest challenge remains in Pakistan. Bin Laden was living in a mansion eight times the size of surrounding homes in Abbottabad, a city located just 30 miles from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, the Pakistan Military Academy or Kakul, is located in Abbottabad. Many retired military officers also reportedly live in the city. White House officials stated that bin Laden’s residence was built in 2005, and apparently for the sole purpose of hiding bin Laden. If bin Laden took up residence in the home shortly after its construction, some Pakistani officials must have been aware of the presence of bin Laden or his cohorts in the city.
The U.S. approach to the raid reveals expectations of such complicity. Early reports of the operation quoted Pakistani officials who claimed that Pakistani intelligence officials were on site during the raid, which reports referred to as a “joint operation.” Yet a later briefing from senior U.S. administration officials revealed that the U.S. did not inform any other country of its actions. The administration official specifically mentioned that Pakistan was not informed. This was almost certainly done to avoid compromising operational security and scuttling the mission. Serious questions now need to be raised about the level of Islamabad’s indifference to al Qaeda operations on Pakistani soil. The early response by Pakistani officials will only raise the volume of such questions. Beyond the early, now apparently false, claim by Pakistani authorizes that the raid was a joint operation, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has already called the killing of bin Laden a “violation of our sovereignty.”
We should focus on forcing a sea change in how local authorities deal with al Qaeda. Pakistan’s continued sheltering of Lashkar e Tayyiba operatives complicit in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks should received renewed attention; indeed, since bin Laden’s death, India has already issued a call for the transfer of such individuals. Even more outrageous is Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of terror groups, such as the Haqqani network, that kill American and allied soldiers and Afghan civilians in Afghanistan, or Islamabad’s refusal to deal with other terror plot-producing safe havens located in the northwestern portion of the country.
The U.S. needs a strategy that prioritizes the reduction of support and operating space for terror groups over cordial relations with on-again, off-again allies. Without friendly operating environments, terrorist groups will be unable to concoct plots, train operatives, and shelter leadership. In Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa, al Qaeda franchises and affiliates have become stronger in the last several years. Bin Laden’s death presents the U.S. with a real opportunity to shift the momentum on the ground back in our favor. A comprehensive strategy that rolls back al Qaeda’s territory and leverages success against the enemy network in one zone to defeat in another can make May 1, 2011 the true beginning of the end for al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Charlie Szrom is an associate at DC International Advisory.