Politics & Policy

Killing Bin Laden

It is a great day, but questions — and challenges — remain.

As someone who lost friends on 9/11 (my office was then on the 82nd floor of Tower Two), knowing that the man responsible for the brutal murder of nearly 3,000 Americans is dead is deeply satisfying. It is even more gratifying knowing his death came as a result of American military action.

In the long term, I believe there is tremendous value in announcing to all those planning to do us harm that we will never stop coming after them. In a very Roman manner, the United States proved to the world that we will never stop searching and that there is no place to hide from our just wrath. Although the Islamic fascists who have declared war on America have always been able to recruit sufficient fanatics willing to kill themselves so as to advance their vile cause, the leadership has always been more circumspect. With few exceptions these men value their lives highly.

Perhaps the knowledge that their actions will inevitably lead to America’s hunting them to the ends of the earth, intent on their death, will cause them to pause and reconsider attacking us in the future. 

Even if Osama’s death does not put an end to the Islamic threat, it is still important for Americans to know that their country can and will sustain a manhunt for however long it takes.

Despite this great success, in the near to medium term I expect little change. Since shortly after 9/11, Osama has been little more than a figurehead. Even prior to 9/11 his only real value to the movement was as a source of funds. When those funds dried up so did most of his authority to command. Moreover, since 9/11, the U.S. military has done an outstanding job in tearing the original al-Qaeda to shreds. Osama truly represents the last of al-Qaeda’s old guard. The rest are dead or being held at Gitmo.

Surely, there is value in killing such an important  inspiration to the Islamic-fascist movement. At the very least, jihadi morale will plummet — for a time. Unfortunately, the new al-Qaeda does not need bin Laden to continue operations. Long ago, al-Qaeda shifted to a decentralized organizational structure capable of attacking American and other Western interests without any guidance from the top. Thankfully, American military and intelligence agencies continue to pursue these scattered organizations with utmost ferocity. These ongoing American military operations are what keep us safe.

The war against Islamic fascism is far from over. Winning it will require relentless pursuit of our nation’s enemies in a brutal war that is often fought in the shadows. We have taken a huge step forward in this war, but victory remains a distant goal.

America has much to celebrate this morning. But it is too early to let our guard down.

We are, however, a little closer to the day when we can.

Over the next few days and weeks, we will find out a lot more about how Osama was discovered and how Special Operations Forces broke into his compound and killed him. I already have one question: How could Osama have lived in a huge compound — some say a mansion — since at least August (likely much longer) without coming to the attention of Pakistan’s all-pervasive intelligence service? That they were not aware of his presence is all the more unbelievable as it appears that his residence was in a town dominated by a Pakistani military base.  Moreover, he was living in a compound at least eight times larger than any other house in the area, one constructed only in 2005. Did Pakistan’s intelligence service really miss it? 

It is, however, to the credit of the Pakistani military that they provided valuable support for the attack, as it appears the American assault helicopters launched from a Pakistani airbase. Still, in a country as chaotic as Pakistan it is possible that one hand does not know what the other is doing. Other scenarios are, however, just as likely: We may not have told the Pakistanis the ultimate target, or when presented with evidence that we knew Osama’s location the Pakistanis may have decided he was no longer worth trying to protect. 

Despite the fact that our special forces were on the ground only 40 minutes, I assume that they did not leave the compound before emptying it of everything of intelligence value. It will be interesting, therefore, to see if Osama’s movements over the past ten years are recorded on some computer disk now in our possession. I also expect that we may now possess a treasure trove of information that will fill in a number of intelligence gaps. 

At the very least, we will likely discover whom Osama counted among his friends. I for one never considered it possible that he could have hidden so long in Pakistan without help from some very important persons in that country, and without the financial support of other persons in the region.  No one his age and with his physical ailments can long survive hiding in a cave. So, it will be very interesting to discover who helped and protected him all these years.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is also the author of The First Clash.


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