Osama is Dead: Long Live Al Qaeda?

I don't feel the jubilation that came with Saddam Hussein's capture in December 2003. Sadly, I know better this time.

Killing Osama bin Laden after all these years is a tremendous achievement for America’s military and intelligence community and for President Obama.  It brings welcome closure to the thousands of victims of al Qaeda–which include the 1993 Bombay bombings, the downing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the attack on the USS Cole, the Madrid train bombings, the London transit attacks; the Khobar massacre, the Hayat Amman hotel bombing, and many others in addition to the 9/11 attacks. But it’s not at all clear that it changes anything.

Shortly after Obama’s election, the Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung reported that, as part of a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, “President-elect Barack Obama also intends to renew the U.S. commitment to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a priority the president-elect believes President Bush has played down after years of failing to apprehend the al-Qaeda leader.” In a New Atlanticist post at the time, I observed,

[I]t would be ironic indeed if a Democratic successor to Bush seriously made tracking down a single terrorist a high priority.  Outgoing Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean caught a lot of flack when he said that the capture of Saddam Hussein would have little practical impact on our success in Iraq. He turned out to be absolutely right.  Putting bin Laden’s head on a stick — or capturing him and subjecting him to the indignity of an international criminal tribunal — would be enormously satisfying but have approximately zero impact on either stabilizing the region or combatting international terrorism.

For that matter, it’s not as if the Bush team didn’t try.  A new administration brings with it new leadership but inherits the existing intelligence and military apparatus.   Does anyone believe that Obama’s predecessor didn’t want to “get” bin Laden?  If nothing else, it would have been a tremendous October surprise that would have simultaneously boosted Bush’s popularity ratings and given John McCain a shot at keeping the White House in Republican hands.

Regardless, whether through increased focus or serendipity, United States forces got him under Obama’s watch. He escaped during the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora and it’s not clear whether he was ever in American crosshairs again.

In his speech last night announcing the raid, Obama declared that, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.” That, frankly, is nonsense. It remains to be seen what impact the death of al Qaeda’s spiritual leader will have on the movement. But nearly ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere has long since rendered the organization a shadow of its former self.

Osama has been so far under ground these past several years that many in the expert community thought he was already dead. Al Qaeda has long since transmogrified into a brand name more so than a central planning hub for major attacks. Local jihadist groups used the al Qaeda label to increase their prestige. And so did quite a number of rank amateurs, orchestrating a series of botched operations reminiscent of the Keystone Kops.

One hopes that the Americans killing the iconic leader of that brand will tarnish its prestige. Certainly, it’s worth a try.

But there’s little reason to think he was still acting in any meaningful way as the leader of Al Qaeda or that his death will have any significant impact on what’s left of that group’s ability to plan and orchestrate terrorist attacks.

I’m happy that bin Laden’s gone. But I don’t feel the jubilation that came with Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003. Sadly, I know better this time.

What’s more interesting now is how he managed to live all these years in a deluxe manor within spitting distance of the Pakistani military academy. You know: our ostensible ally in the war on terrorism.

Graphic credit: Bay News 9.

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of the original post.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. hln says:

    You are exactly correct. Are we safer? No. If the funding can be completely cut off, yes. Will we ever know about that? No – it’s not politically sexy.

    I’m amazed at the Facebook commentary last night – intelligent friends of mine who either credit President Obama or think that we can somehow pull out of Afghanistan now.

    No, and no. Terror orgs are hydras – as long as there is funding, another head will pop up.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Funny you were jubilant about Saddam…because getting rid of him empowered Iran. Maybe his death didn’t matter because it was unrelated to 9/11 and terror in general. He was a boogeyman of tremendously inflated proportions.
    Will Osama’s death make a difference? Who knows. But I relish partisan hacks trying to belittle Obamas accomplishment.
    To paraphrase your post: maybe it was focus, maybe it was luck, but, but, but, but…
    In any praise which comes with a “but” nothing that comes before the “but” matters. In matters foreign and domestic this president is getting done what others before him have been unable to do. And the hacks keep saying; but, but, but…
    Meep meep

  3. Murray says:

    I too don’t feel any particular jubilation at Ben Laden’s death, but rather a fatalistic “it had to be done, it’s done” feeling.

    I am happy that it’s done but not in the “we won the Orange Bowl” way the crowds at the WH exhibited. My mood I guess is tempered by the fact his death won’t bring back the friends I lost on 9/11, and I can only find solace in the thought that, maybe, his death will help prevent other attacks.

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    That’s well said, Murray.

  5. Barry says:

    “For that matter, it’s not as if the Bush team didn’t try. A new administration brings with it new leadership but inherits the existing intelligence and military apparatus. Does anyone believe that Obama’s predecessor didn’t want to “get” bin Laden? If nothing else, it would have been a tremendous October surprise that would have simultaneously boosted Bush’s popularity ratings and given John McCain a shot at keeping the White House in Republican hands.”

    What did Bush say in his first term, after 9/11?
    “I’m not that concerned about him?”

    Now, perhaps OBL was caught by a secret strike force personally led by Dubya, with his sidekick ‘Machinegun Condi’ Rice, with Dick ‘The Cyborg Cyberwizard’ Cheney pulling info in his secret lair, but from what the Bush administration said and accopmlished, they didn’t care one rat’s pattotie about killing OBL.

  6. tom p says:

    Howard Dean caught a lot of flack when he said that the capture of Saddam Hussein would have little practical impact on our success in Iraq. He turned out to be absolutely right. Putting bin Laden’s head on a stick — or capturing him and subjecting him to the indignity of an international criminal tribunal — would be enormously satisfying but have approximately zero impact on either stabilizing the region or combatting international terrorism.

    I am having a hard time agreeing with you here James simply because equating Saddams death with Bin Ladens is apples and oranges. Iraq was falling into a civil war when Saddam was captured and he was quite beside the point of anything that was happening there. No matter what, Saddam was never returning to relevence in Iraq.

    Bin Laden on the other hand:

    Then again, Osama has been so far under ground these past several years that many in the expert community thought he was already dead. Al Qaeda has long since transmogrified into a brand name moreso than a central planning hub for major attacks. Local jihadist groups used the Al Qaeda label to increase their prestige. And so did quite a number of rank amateurs, orchestrating a series of botched operations reminiscent of the Keystone Kops.

    Now I hate to give Bush credit for anything, but AQ becoming just a brand name and the recent string of “Amatuer Hour” terrorist attacks is due in no small part to the fact that Bin Laden and company had been forced so deeply underground that they were ineffective. Imagine how much more ineffective Bin Laden is now that he is dead? And as the “spiritual leader” of AQ he could still have had an impact in the future.

    Will terrorism continue? Of course, as a tactic it is effective. Bin Laden’s death changes that not at all, but the fracturing of AQ lead to a direct decline in the effectiveness of AQ and I suspect his death will lead to the end of it.

    But don’t worry, something else rise up to take it’s place.

  7. PJ says:

    al Qaeda have never been the threat nor the force that some people made them out to be. So, in a way, I think that death of Osama will have an impact, unless you let those who gain from the idea that al Qaeda are this major force continue to write that story.

    The leader of an organization who were able to, with little means, cause a lot of deaths and damage has now paid with his life.

    I’m also very happy that the mission was to capture him alive.

  8. john personna says:

    I”m more with PJ. I think the threat to American citizens was low, and that civilians should have shown more personal courage in face of it.

    And I would like this to be the end-note on occupation. It even struck me that it could have been a deal, that someone gave him up. If we can leave, it’s a fair deal.

  9. george says:

    I”m more with PJ. I think the threat to American citizens was low, and that civilians should have shown more personal courage in face of it.

    I agree. Giving up liberty for safety (things like the Patriot Act) is always the wrong thing to do. What was that quote from Ben Franklin – something along the lines of those who give up liberty for security deserve neither.

  10. HelloWorld! says:

    Are you kidding me? His capture and kill represents the descruction of his mojo. His is no longer legend that he once was in the minds of some. Especially given the fact that he was living in luxury.

  11. HelloWorld! says:

    Repost (in better english)

    Are you kidding me? His capture and kill represents the destruction of his mojo. He is no longer legend that he once was in the minds of some. Especially given the fact that he was living in luxury.

  12. mantis says:

    This creates some very interesting opportunities for anti-terrorism forces around the world. If they were successful at keeping this operation a secret, and it seems they were, and if they have laid the groundwork for the follow up operations and intelligence gathering, our follow up could be quite potent.

    At this point, Al Qaeda operations surely want to retaliate. In order to do so, they must perform recon, coordinate, and communicate within and among their diffuse networks. In short, they need to stick their heads up. The next six months or so will likely be the best opportunity for us to do some serious damage to the operational leadership and networks. And if they do it right, we probably won’t even hear about a lot of it.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Does anyone believe that Obama’s predecessor didn’t want to “get” bin Laden?

    Well, there are his own words:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PGmnz5Ow-o

    And then Obamas:

    “We will kill bin Laden”.

    There is no equivalence between bin laden and saddam. Zero. You were jubilant about Saddam’s capture because you got played for a sucker.

    Bush decided that Saddam, a man who did not attack this country, was more important than bin ladan, a man that did. It was a serious mistake. Fast forward to now – Bush and Obama both got it right last night. “Justice has been done”. At long last. The people who died on 9.11 and all of bin laden’s victims deserved no less. This is a huge win for our country.

  14. steve says:

    Killing Osama may have some propaganda value. It might make it a bit difficult for jihadists to recruit. Howevre, AQ had already lost most of its influence, so I dont see it making a large difference.

    Steve

  15. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: But, WRT Bin Laden, Bush was right. The jihadist threat, such as it was, was never about one dude.

    And, no, I didn’t think capturing Saddam made us somehow safer as a country. My thought at the time, though, was that it would take the air out of the budding insurgency since their leader was now out of commission. I thought, too, that his allowing himself to be captured would be a blow to his prestige. It turned out, though, that the insurgency has little to do with Saddam.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: Re-watching the Bush video, it’s amazing how solid his analysis was. It was a politically dumb thing to say and his smirky mannerism certainly doesn’t help matters. But everything he said was dead-on.

  17. anjin-san says:

    It turned out, though, that the insurgency has little to do with Saddam.

    That’s accurate as micro analysis. The big picture is that we should have never gone war with Iraq at all.

    But everything he said was dead-on.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Actually, this is a very big deal. I think it’s effectively the end of Al Qaeda. So I disagree with you on that, James.

    They’d already been hurt and hurt badly — in part by our actions, in part by their own impotence, their inability to launch a follow-up. Then they took the self-inflicted wound of their brutality in Iraq.

    Now their DB Cooper, their mythically uncatchable founder and spirit guide has an American bullet in his head.

    I don’t think Al Qaeda will recover. Will they lash out? No doubt. But they’ve been trying to mount another 9-11 and failing. So there’s no reason to believe they’ll suddenly become successful.

    Worst of all for them: the times have changed. The Arab spring, the outreach by Obama, it means a paradigm shift and their day is done.

  19. anjin-san says:

    But everything he said was dead-on.

    He left out something very important. Justice for the 9.11 victims. We heard a lot about that directly after 9.11, but the ball got dropped. Like I said, both Presidents got it right last night. Justice has been served.

    And, no, I didn’t think capturing Saddam made us somehow safer as a country. My thought at the time, though, was that it would take the air out of the budding insurgency

    So you were “jubilant” because you thought “this will take the air out of the budding insurgence”? Sorry, does not wash. That is not something that makes one leap into the air and click their heels.

    You were jubilant because you got played and were convinced Saddam’s capture was of vast importance. You and pretty much every other Republican.

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: We’ll see whether OBL is more useful as a martyr than as a man hiding in Pakistan without communications. I’m hoping not. But, as you note, al Qaeda was largely dead, anyway.

    @anjin-san: From the beginning, my only goal in Iraq was regime change. We accomplished that in the first three weeks. We then spun into a mission creep of nation-building, which I hoped Saddam’s capture would end.

    As with OBL, he was a bad guy and I was glad that he was gone. The difference was that the Iraq War was a fresh, ongoing event whereas the war on al Qaeda has long since become background noise. Plus, as I say, the non-factor that the first became tempered my enthusiasm about the second.

  21. HelloWorld! says:

    “My thought at the time, though, was that it would take the air out of the budding insurgency”

    -Its sounds like you were unaware of the polical, religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq if you thought that.

    Osama’s dead, a win for justice and he will never be a legend again!! Hip-hip horay!

  22. Tlaloc says:

    But nearly ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere has long since rendered the organization a shadow of its former self.

    And done the same to us, both morally and economically. We’re losing.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    One other side benefit: I guarantee you Gaddafi is checking the locks and thinking about Venezuelan beaches.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @Tlaloc: Compared to some ideal, perhaps. Compared to the rest of the Western world, not so much.

    @michael reynolds Maybe. There’s never been a doubt in my mind that we could kill or capture Gaddafi within 36 hours of the president ordering it. I opposed intervention but, now that we’re in it, would just as soon have him give the signal.

  25. Tlaloc says:

    @Tlaloc: Compared to some ideal, perhaps. Compared to the rest of the Western world, not so much.

    True, a lot of the west has descended into barbarism, and we’re rushing to join them. But I think you miss something critical. A huge part of our power was a mystique of american righteousness that we created in large part due to our role in WW2 and the aftermath. We set ourselves against an enemy that was pretty easy to define as evil and then afterward we didn’t just run home with the spoils of war, we instead spent money to rebuild the nations we had destroyed as well as those we had protected. It was brilliant and it had a huge psychic power to it that lent us a superman like mantle of authority born out of goodness. That image took heavy hits with vietnam and all the cold war BS but still you found people who belived int he “shining beacon on the hill.”

    That was a huge advantage for us, and now I think it is spent. As Arthur Miller said, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Well I think when we became known as torturers we exhausted the illusion of American goodness, and the era of our preeminent superpower status may be coming to an end.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    I opposed intervention but, now that we’re in it, would just as soon have him give the signal.

    Normally so would I.

    But we’re getting a very interesting side benefit from this. France, the UK, and now Italy, are beginning to see viscerally what until now has been an abstraction for them. Namely that they can do military operations other than holding our coats. I think they’re also learning the limitations of their militaries.

    These are democratic countries of course so in the end it comes down to their voters and what they have to say, but the elites in these NATO countries are getting a serious look at a world where they are actually required to take some responsibility. I think that’s a potentially wonderful thing to see.

    Also, as cold-blooded as it may sound, the rebels are earning their rights the hard way. With luck they’ll come through this matured, tested, and more ready than they would otherwise have been. I’m not sure we’d be doing them any favors handing it to them. If they pull this off they’ll owe a huge debt to NATO but they’ll have legitimate bragging rights themselves. And they won’t automatically become our responsibility. Long term that’s probably good.

  27. john personna says:

    There’s never been a doubt in my mind that we could kill or capture Gaddafi within 36 hours of the president ordering it.

    Good Lord. Has the last decade not taught some humility? How many hours would you have given the Japanese to get a nuke under control after an earthquake?

    This has been a decade of education: Black swans live,

    And that’s one important reason not to bet too deep in Libya.

  28. anjin-san says:

    james, you are wrong about the difference between bin laden and saddam. One murdered thousands of americans in the heart of new york city. the other did not. Saddam should not really even be parts of this discussion, except perhaps to point out how we lost focus on bin laden, and mistakenly put it on saddam.

    I’m sure we will see many more posts from you and Doug saying “obama did a good job, but…”
    Sorry, there is no “but” in this equation, except perhaps to professional republican apologists

  29. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m skeptical but agree that would be a fantastic outcome.

    @john personna: I’d not have speculated on Japan’s ability to handle a horrific natural disaster. It’s beyond my technical knowledge and there are far more variables. But I’m within my zone of confidence in saying we could easily oust Gaddafi.

    American military force has tremendous limits. Taking out bad guys is not among them. We toppled the Taliban and Saddam both quickly and easily. We suck at post-conflict stability ops, not kinetics.

  30. john personna says:

    You said “kill Gaddafi in 36 hours” and then referenced Saddam. Seriously?

    FWIW I rank Gaddafi smarter than Saddam.

  31. mattb says:

    “a lot of the west has descended into barbarism, and we’re rushing to join them.”

    No offense, but can you give examples of what you mean by that?! This just reads like hyperbole of a pretty high order.

  32. Steve Verdon says:

    That image took heavy hits with vietnam and all the cold war BS but still you found people who belived int he “shining beacon on the hill.”

    That was a huge advantage for us, and now I think it is spent. As Arthur Miller said, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Well I think when we became known as torturers we exhausted the illusion of American goodness, and the era of our preeminent superpower status may be coming to an end.

    I agree with much of this. Here is Radley Balko on this point,

    We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.

    We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.

    In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.

    We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.

    The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.

    The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.

    Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)

    The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.

    The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.

    Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.

    American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.

    Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.

    The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.

    Bin Laden won and we lost. We lost what we once were and what we are now is something less.

  33. Tlaloc says:

    No offense, but can you give examples of what you mean by that?! This just reads like hyperbole of a pretty high order.

    The common even routine use of torture and popular acceptance of same. The attacks on intellectualism, facts, and science in favor of superstition and denialism.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    Steve V:

    Uncharacteristically short-horizon for you.

    This is hardly our first national freak-out. Alien and Sedition Acts, suspension of habeas corpus, internment of Japanese-Americans, McCarthyism. Those are just off the top of my head. We freak a little and we swing back. So far.

  35. john personna says:

    Catching Bin Laden soon > catching Bin Laden now > catching Bin Laden never

  36. Tlaloc says:

    This is hardly our first national freak-out. Alien and Sedition Acts, suspension of habeas corpus, internment of Japanese-Americans, McCarthyism. Those are just off the top of my head. We freak a little and we swing back. So far.

    It’s different once you enter the the modern communication age where nothing is ever really forgotten and every sin is magnified.

  37. mattb says:

    Tlaloc,

    The cynic in me would suggest that we’ve always been barbarous (on look no further than colonial projects the went on well into the 20th century, Genocide projects within Europe, or racial atrocities within the US). I’ve heard stories about individual units treatment of German POW’s in WWII that are pretty barbarous as well.

    The thing is we just are more aware of where it happens.

    To the degree that there has been degradation of “morals”, the question becomes how much is reported and how much becomes accepted/mainstreamed/systematized. The rationalization/sanction of “enhanced interrogation” techniques is really scary.

    On the flip side, we need to apply the same logic to both sides. I’ll be among the first to say that we cannot paint Islam with a single brush — i.e. they are all terrorists. Likewise, I feel we need to make sure we give ourselves the same courtesy. I don’t think the average Westerner is more barbarous than before. In fact, in many cases I think it’s actually decreasing on many levels.

    So, for example, crappy things are still done to minorities in this country. Yet at the same time, I see more and more open acceptance of minorities by the vast majorities of the population. That isn’t to say there’s a ton of work that still needs to be done.

    But I’m concerned that we risk vacating the meaning of the term barbarous (the same way that discussion boards have pretty much vacated Nazi).

  38. mattb says:

    It’s different once you enter the the modern communication age where nothing is ever really forgotten and every sin is magnified.

    Yeah… I have a hard time with this one too. Granted we are in an extreme transitional period, but these sorts of realignments have happened in the past (and at an accelerating pace for nearly 200 years — starting with the steam driven press and the beginnings of mass media).

    The fact is that while some sins are magnified, many remain dormant — they might erupt or they might not. Likewise good news also does tend to travel and have legs as well… but again not all good news.

    We are (or at least have the ability to become) more aware of things. So we are more convinced about the “rise in barbarism” … but I think this is akin to how becoming more aware of bear and shark attacks or terrorist strikes tends to make people think that there’s always one around the corner.

    I also suspect that we are also becoming media savy in new ways that will negate some of these current hysterias. Of course that also means we’ll become blind to older attentions and new hysterias will emerge.

  39. An Interested Party says:

    re: michael reynolds Monday, May 2, 2011 16:55

    We do have our regular freak outs, don’t we? I look forward to the day when we swing back from our current one…