Death of Osama bin Laden: Are we safe now?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

In the age of ir­reg­u­lar war­fare fol­low­ing Sept. 11, 2001, mea­sur­ing vic­tory has proved dif­fi­cult and po­lit­i­cally con­tentious. But no one can ar­gue with news of May 1: The United States fi­nally killed Osama bin Laden, the per­pe­tra­tor of the at­tacks of that ter­ri­ble day and the dead­li­est ter­ror­ist of the mod­ern age.

Af­ter nearly 3,000 civil­ians died on that clear Tues­day morn­ing, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush promised to “get him.”

Al­most a decade later, it fell to his suc­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Obama, to or­der a covert op­er­a­tion in Pak­istan to de­liver on that prom­ise and re­mark that “jus­tice has now been done.”

Af­ter what has tran­spired, the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: Is Amer­ica safer now? The war on ter­ror was never go­ing to end like World War II, with a for­mal sur­ren­der signed on the deck of a bat­tle­ship, with a cease-fire or any for­mal peace set­tle­ment.

Our en­emy is not a nation with a gov­ern­ment or con­ven­tional mil­i­tary forces.

It may be that terrorism can never be de­feated — sim­ply sup­pressed.

In the past decade, Amer­ica has been very suc­cess­ful in sup­press­ing al Qaeda.

Af­ter the United States top­pled the Tal­iban regime in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his top com­man­ders were forced to go on the run.

While they have since pro­vided inspiration to po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists, such as would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Christ­mas Day bomber Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mu­tal­lab, al Qaeda’s ca­pac­ity to plan and ex­e­cute mass-ca­su­alty at­tacks has been greatly di­min­ished.

Both the qual­ity and suc­cess rate of the at­tacks al Qaeda has planned or en­cour­aged against the United States have fallen tremen­dously.

The only one that re­sulted in deaths on U.S. soil was Maj. Nidal Ma­lik Hasan’s mass shoot­ing at Fort Hood in No- vem­ber 2009.

Yet we can­not write off al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda was cre­ated when bin Laden united the Mu­jahideen Ser­vice Bu­reau, which had re­cruited Arabs to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Egyp­tian ter­ror­ist group Is­lamic Ji­had (EIJ). Mus­lim Brother­hood mem­ber Ay­man al-Zawahri founded Is­lamic Ji­had in hopes of de­stroy­ing the apos­tate gov­ern­ment in Cairo.

Al-Zawahri was al Qaeda’s sec­ond in com­mand, but its most im­por­tant source of ide­o­log­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion.

If he’s still alive to­day, he will surely be­come bin Laden’s suc­ces­sor.

With bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda’s ap­peal has un­doubt­edly been re­duced, but the group was al­ways built to sur­vive the death of its founder.

In a way, bin Laden was only the lat­est and great­est in a line of nasty ter­ror­ists who drew inspiration from Sayyid Qutb and the Mus­lim Brother­hood be­gin- ning in the 1920s.

In the com­ing weeks, al Qaeda’s fol­low­ers around the world will re­act to the news of the their charis­matic leader’s death. For­tu­nately, even if a hand­ful of bin Laden’s most pas­sion­ate fol­low­ers go on to plot fu­ture at­tacks, in what au­thor and for­mer CIA op­er­a­tive Marc Sage­man once called “lead­er­less ji­had,” they will most likely lack the knowl­edge and train­ing to do se­ri­ous harm.

Yet the death of one man — even bin Laden him­self — is far less im­por­tant than the broader ques­tions of re­gional pol­i­tics and the is­sue of gov­ern­mentsanc­tioned safe havens.

Ob­jec­tively, al Qaeda posed the great­est threat to Amer­ica when it had a state-spon­sored sanc­tu­ary, whether in 1993, when it was be­ing run out of Su­dan and ex­e­cuted the first World Trade Cen­ter at­tack, or 2001, when it had the sup­port of the Tal­iban and fi­nally suc­ceeded in bring­ing down the Twin Tow­ers.

Even if al-Zawahri takes con- trol of al Qaeda, the group will not pose as great a threat to Amer­ica as it has in the past, un­less it finds a new state sanc­tu­ary in which to re­con­sti­tute its ranks with­out fear of reprisals.

It is now up to the pres­i­dent’s top men, for­mer Cen­tral Com­mand head and newly des­ig­nated CIA Di­rec­tor Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, and soon-to-be Sec­re­tary of De­fense Leon E. Panetta, to en­sure that nei­ther Afghanistan nor Pak­istan be­comes that sanc­tu­ary.

At the least, bin Laden’s death shows that even in Pak­istan, that sanc­tu­ary has its lim­its.

Se­bas­tian V. Gorka is di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Fel­lows Pro­gram at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies and teaches ir­reg­u­lar war­fare at the Col­lege of In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Af­fairs, Na­tional De­fense Univer­sity. He is con­tribut­ing co-edi­tor of “To­ward a Grand Strat­egy Against Terrorism” (McGraw Hill, 2011).

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