A brief note about the death of bin Laden
Summary: It’s not a big event. It might not even be good news for the US, from a long-term perspective. Also see the follow-up post About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken.
“… and into the aerial weaponry the Americans used to pull off arguably the most important military operation of the decade.”"
— delusional nonsense by David Axe and Noah Shachtman, writing at Wired, 2 May 2011
“I’ve never been so excited to see the photo of a corpse with a gunshot wound through the head.”
– Twitter by Emily Miller, Senior Editor of The Washington Times
- It’s not a big event
- Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
- The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
- For more information
(1) It’s not a big event
We don’t know if bin Laden (sick, hiding in the mountains) still exercised any meaningful control over al Qaeda. We do not even know if al Qaeda still exists in any substantial form, or just as a global brand name. The actual victory might be the de facto destruction of AQ by the police and intelligence services of the US and our allies. The militarization of not just our foreign policy but also our thinking prevents us from seeing this accomplishment — an unrecognized great victory. For more information see
- “The Tactical Irrelevance of Osama bin Laden’s Death“, Stratfor, 2 May 2011
(2) Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
“An official also said bin Laden’s death puts al Qaeda on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” (source: Reuters)
Not necessarily. It depends on who replaces him. Bin Laden as a martyr and AQ now competently run = bad news for us.
Update: if our uninvited incursion into Pakistan to kill bin Laden angers the Pakistan people — one border crossing too many — than this will have been a strategic mistake. We’re not the only people with national pride.
(3) The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
It is unusual for an America President to so personalize something about which he obviously had so little role — and which more properly a national accomplishment. It’s as if Nixon took personal credit for Apollo 11. See comment #1 for a comparison with a similar speech by President Bush Jr. Excerpt, from Reuters:
Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children. … Yet, Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.
And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda. Even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat his network.
Then last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain. And it took many months to run this thread to ground.
I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside Pakistan.
And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abad Abad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
An optimistic view from the always interesting Michael A. Cohen (bio here): Bin Laden’s Death: Beginning of the End of the War on Terror“, World Politics Review, 2 May 2011 — I hope he’s correct, but suspect that he’s wrong. Excerpt:
But bin Laden’s death does mean that the exaggerated role that terrorism has played in America’s foreign policy discussions for the past 10 years can finally come to an end. Osama bin Laden, for better or worse, was the face of the terrorist threat to America. As long as he was at large, not only would the war on terrorism remain seemingly unfinished in the eyes of the American people, but the threat would remain viscerally real — even though from all accounts his operational role in al-Qaida had diminished. With his death, the terrorism narrative that has held this country in its thrall for 10 terrible years has taken a rather significant and perhaps fatal hit.
(5) For more information
(a) See all posts about al Qaeda here.
(b) Posts about bin Laden:
- Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008
- Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America, 6 February 2011
(c) These are some posts about AQ most relevant today:
- Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
- The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important, 15 September 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
- Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
- Today’s news about the Ak-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength, 1 July 2010
- “The Almanac of Al Qaeda” – about our foe, 16 June 2010
(d) Some posts about our Islamic foes:
- Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
- RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
- Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”, 17 March 2010
- Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010
- Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 1 May 2010
- Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris , 1 May 2011