Shadow Government

A moment of pride

The killing of Osama bin Laden marks a great day for America, for the world, and for the hope of justice. As many others have commented, the successful operation ordered by President Obama and carried out by the CIA and Special Forces operators culminated years of effort across multiple domains of intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, and the military. Many streams converged to make this happen -- from the counter-terrorism policies and institutions established after the 9/11 attacks, to the first intelligence collected from Guantanamo detainees four years ago about the identity of bin Laden's courier, to the identification of bin Laden's compound last August, to the NSC's careful deliberations and President Obama's decision to eschew bombing the compound in favor of an assault that would bring the tremendous benefit of securing bin Laden's body, to the operation itself. This is a moment in which the White House can take pride, as can all of those dedicated American officials who devoted substantial portions of their lives to the hunt for bin Laden over the past decade. All of them deserve our fervent gratitude. A few additional thoughts:

  • It is telling that bin Laden had been hiding for the past few years in a luxury compound with an abundance of amenities. Part of his carefully crafted self-image and ideological appeal to would-be jihadists came from his purported ascetic self-denial and eschewal of the trappings of wealth on behalf of his perverse cause. Now we learn that instead of living in a cave for the past few years, he's been living in a mansion in Pakistan's version of the Hamptons. The Obama Administration should exploit this fact in its ongoing "war of ideas" efforts to delegitimize jihadism.
  • Reactions around the world are revealing and provide moments of moral clarity. The vast majority of nations join us in celebrating bin Laden's death. Not so with Hamas or the Iranian government. And the statements from Muslim Brotherhood leaders to the effect of "we're glad he's gone but the United States should leave Muslim lands" are disturbing in their moral equivalency.
  • As many have pointed out, this is a serious blow to the global jihadist movement, but the war is not yet over. Hard work and difficult decisions lie ahead, as the US assesses what if anything this might mean for our posture, strategic goals, challenges, and opportunities, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. An immediate question will be who, if anyone, attempts to take bin Laden's place as the symbolic head of the jihadist movement, whether Ayman Al Zawahiri, Anwar al Awlaki, or someone else. Whoever it may be, he should be on notice about the strength and endurance of American resolve against those who seek to do us harm.

Shadow Government

Beyond bin Laden

Osama bin Laden's death is an occasion for celebration. President Obama should be commended for launching the operation, and the quiet professionals who carried out the dangerous mission deserve our thanks. Those who lost family and friends that Tuesday morning nearly ten years ago should draw some solace from the fact that the man who was ultimately responsible for killing so many innocents can no longer do so.

Bin Laden's death will affect the course of the ongoing war on al Qaeda and its affiliates. Individuals matter a great deal in determining the course of history, a fact that applies to terrorist organizations as well as states. Who emerges as the leader of al Qaeda will be enormously consequential for the movement's direction and appeal throughout the Muslim world. Just as he served as the glue that held various factions within al Qaeda together over the years, so too will his death affect all Qaeda going forward. To take but one example, Bin Laden's longtime deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly emphasized Egypt as the centerpiece of al Qaeda's quest to re-establish a caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.  At the same time, al Qaeda has become more decentralized in recent years with the emergence of al Qaeda's franchises: al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq). These groups appear to operate with little guidance from Bin Laden or his close associates in Pakistan.

There will be a temptation among some quarters at home and abroad to declare, "Mission accomplished". Opponents of the war in Afghanistan will cite Bin Laden's death as evidence strengthening the case for reducing U.S. forces in the region. Those who oppose a vigorous internationalist strategy will escalate their calls for the United States to adopt more of an "offshore" role. The Pakistanis will attempt to tout their cooperation with the United States in bringing bin Laden to justice while diverting American attention from such uncomfortable questions as how and why bin Laden was able to live for months or years under the noses of Pakistani military and intelligence officers. Other partners, whose enthusiasm for defeating al Qaeda has been limited, may be perfectly willing to declare victory and go home.

This temptation must be resisted, however. Protracted wars are not decided on the outcome of any individual episode. Rather, they turn on the progressive attrition of the adversary's sources of power. Similarly, this conflict will not end in a single battle or campaign. Rather, al Qaeda and its extremist vision will be defeated through the patient accumulation of quiet successes. Victory will include discrediting extremist ideology, creating fissures between and among extremist groups, and reducing them to the level of a nuisance, groups that can be tracked and handled by local law enforcement groups.

An evil man can no do no more harm. However, an evil organization animated by a malignant ideology persists. Much work remains to be done.