COMMENTARY | “Osama may be more dangerous to the West dead than he was alive,” warns a construction worker in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday by American special forces. How likely will the construction worker’s statement prove prophetic?
In the short-term, it appears highly likely that various radical groups around the world will try to mount attacks against Western targets to either avenge his death or prove continuing operational capability. The U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert Monday strongly encouraging citizens in areas likely to be affected by anti-American violence to exercise extreme caution when moving about.
However, bin Laden’s death, and especially how it came about, is almost certainly a strategic blow to al Qaeda. For whatever organized hierarchy of al Qaeda that remains, the fact that the group’s leader was tracked down through a courier will necessarily reduce its ability to not just act, but also communicate. Who is al Qaeda going to trust won’t be the exploitable weak link to get at the organization? That will necessarily reduce the group’s operational capacity for the foreseeable future.
More importantly, bin Laden’s death is a devastating symbolic blow to al Qaeda as a movement. In the years since 9/11, al Qaeda has evolved from a centralized operational organization into decentralized collection of aligned groups. Essentially, al Qaeda has become the guiding philosophy that joins together what otherwise would be unconnected radical entities. It is precisely because in the present day al Qaeda is more symbolic than directly operational that bin Laden’s death will prove so damaging to their cause.
Osama bin Laden was radical Islam’s best symbol for fighting the West and getting away with it. As long as he stayed alive, he was “proof” that you could take on the West and “win.” All he had to do was from time to time prove that he was alive by sending out taped messages commenting on the topics of the day, and he continued to “win.” That he was tracked down and eliminated deep inside Pakistan by the United States in a unilateral action almost 10 years after 9/11 sends a clear and unequivocal message that there is no safe harbor anywhere and anytime for those who seek to kill Americans.
Al Qaeda was already struggling to stay relevant in the battle for “hearts and minds” in a Muslim world increasingly being swept up by democracy-inspired “Arab Spring” of Tunisia, Egypt and other places. Losing their most charismatic public figure can only do more harm than good to al Qaeda’s cause.
That said, no one should assume that al Qaeda as a movement has also been killed off by bin Laden’s death. The groups it represents still remain extremely dangerous all around the world. As Council of Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass notes, “It is a milestone, not a turning point, in what remains an ongoing struggle without a foreseeable end.”