Bin Laden, No More
America’s most wanted meets his Maker. What’s the significance of his death?


John Hannah
Bin Laden’s death at the hands of a small team of American ninjas deep in Pakistan sends the world — especially our enemies — a powerful and much-needed reminder of some essential American attributes: courage, audacity, resolve, competence, honor, patriotism, loyalty, lethality. ”Don’t Tread on Me.” That simple message, that re-affirmation, it seems to me, is the real significance of Sunday night’s attack — more than any immediate, direct operational impact it may or may not have on the War on Terror generally or the fight in Afghanistan specifically. As Victor Davis Hanson has noted, the fact that bin Laden met his Maker on the receiving end of a Navy SEAL’s gun fired at close range, rather than a Hellfire missile launched from a bloodless unmanned Predator, is extremely significant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in an Arab/Middle Eastern culture where this sort of thing still really matters, the U.S. assault screams out “massive cojones,” and plays hugely in our favor in terms of the strong-vs.-weak-horse narrative that has dominated jihadist discourse vis-à-vis the United States.

This is no doubt a blow to al-Qaeda. Yes, the organization has dramatically morphed and disaggregated since 2001. Bin Laden’s day-to-day role was minimal, if non-existent. But as the movement’s great charismatic leader, to whom all members swore personal allegiance, OBL’s symbolic significance was tremendous. Again, in the all-important psychological battle, the test of wills, the war of ideas, bin Laden’s ignoble demise — in hiding for years, constantly on the run, unable to operate, literally walled off from the outside world — is a major blow, especially for the millions of disaffected youth across the ummah contemplating whether to sign on with the global jihad. Attacking America apparently ends not in victory and the romance of martyrdom, but in an unceremonious dumping at sea with the U.S. military officiating. Coming on top of the great Middle Eastern revolts of 2011, in which al-Qaeda’s meme has been mostly irrelevant, if not outright rejected by the youth on the streets, bin Laden’s death is very bad news indeed for the future of worldwide takfirism.

As others have remarked, the Pakistani angle to these events could be deeply troubling. More needs to be learned before final judgment is rendered. Exactly how egregious an example was this of the duplicity of the Pakistani ISI? What role did the Pakistani military and security services play in the overall operation? How extensive was their support? Will the incident prove to be the final nail in the coffin of what remains of the tattered U.S.-Pakistani strategic partnership? Or will it provide the basis for some new beginning of enhanced trust and cooperation?

Thank God for the men and women of the American military. Kudos to U.S. intelligence. Deep appreciation to President Bush for his leadership and courage in launching the War on Terror, including some of its most controversial aspects. And great credit to President Obama in his finest hour as our commander-in-chief. The ghosts of the failed Iran hostage rescue and of Black Hawk Down could not but have weighed heavily on him at that fateful, extremely lonely moment of decision when he green-lighted the daring helicopter assault. He well deserves our praise and our deep thanks. 

 — John Hannah, who was national-security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Frederick Kagan
The killing of Osama bin Laden is an important achievement. He was the founder of the al-Qaeda brand and the symbol of its continued potency in the face of America’s determined efforts to kill him. It does not, however, mark the end of the struggle against al-Qaeda itself, let alone the larger struggle against Islamism. The al-Qaeda cancer metastasized long ago throughout Pakistan, on the Arabian peninsula, and into Muslim Africa. Experts who study the organization have long described its decentralized nature and resilience. Previous successful attacks on al-Qaeda leaders have demonstrated that resilience repeatedly. One such success should give us special pause. U.S. forces found and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in June 2006. Many celebrated that moment as a potential turning point, and so it proved to be — but not in the way we had hoped. Abu Ayyub al-Masri replaced Zarqawi almost instantly and launched an even more skillful, ruthless, and devastating campaign of car bombing in Baghdad, which stoked the flames of sectarian conflict far beyond anything Zarqawi had been able to achieve.

Interestingly, al-Qaeda in Iraq is no longer capable of such attacks and has been increasingly marginalized as a threat to the Iraqi government and people and, even more so, to Americans. But we did not achieve that by catching al-Masri. Instead, together with our Iraqi partners, we eliminated the conditions that had allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to flourish while continuing to attack the organization itself relentlessly.

The current moment of celebration is thus also a moment of great danger. Not only will all al-Qaeda groups — and al-Qaeda wannabes — seek revenge for bin Laden’s death, but the U.S. and its partners around the world can delude themselves that the war is over. They can believe that we can stop fighting now; that we can pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and, indeed, the entire region.

But the war will not be over, because the remaining al-Qaeda leaders and their various franchisees around the world continue to seek our destruction and continue to have the means to do so. It would be pleasant indeed if we could end this conflict with one bullet, but, alas, that is not the case. This is a moment for sober celebration and even more sober reflection. Above all, it is a moment to rededicate ourselves to completing the process of defeating a horrific enemy.

 — Frederick W. Kagan is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.


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