The assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by US Special Forces on May 2, 2011 provoked mixed reactions around the world. In the United States, it was greeted in many quarters with spontaneous celebrations and public rhetoric about justice finally having been seen to be done for the victims of 9/11. In Pakistan, it was met with some discomfort that he had lived there unnoticed and unmolested for so long, and with a sense of genuine concern about the potential political fall-out of the raid for US-Pakistan relations and domestic stability. In many other world capitals, there was a sense of relief that the hunt for the elusive leader of al-Qaeda was finally over, but some disquiet over the manner in which it had played out and the joyous reaction it provoked in the American public. In attempting to assess the real impact and potential long-term consequences of bin Laden’s death, two key questions are foremost: what does it mean for the future of al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation; and what impact will it have on the war on terror and the broader counter-terrorism approach of the United States?
One of the real difficulties of assessing the impact of bin Laden’s killing on the future of al-Qaeda lies in the contrasting, even contradictory, perspectives by experts on exactly what al-Qaeda represents, and therefore what kind of security threat it continues to pose. As a recent book by Christina Hellmich demonstrates, there is no consensus on these questions among al-Qaeda scholars and experts. Nevertheless, an assessment of the various possibilities which takes into account the divergent perspectives on the group suggests that the killing of bin Laden means very little in real terms and will not affect al-Qaeda to any significant degree in the long run.
First, if as some experts like Peter Bergen and Fawaz Gerges argue, al-Qaeda was already a spent force, regardless of its real form or actual capabilities, then his death will only continue to hasten its increasing irrelevance and impotence. This viewpoint is based on the observation that the group has failed to launch any major attacks for several years now, and presently appears to rely solely on amateurish plots by lone self-radicalisers such as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Detroit Christmas Day bomber. It is also based on the events of the so-called Arab Spring in which al-Qaeda and groups like it have played no role and have been politically marginalized. In other words, from this perspective, the death of bin Laden is fairly meaningless because al-Qaeda itself is no longer a meaningful actor.
Second, if as experts like Jeffrey Cozzens, Magnus Ranstorp and Xavier Raufer argue, al-Qaeda is not a hierarchically-organised group but rather a diffused and amorphous functional network with numerous nodal points and genuine adaptability, then the destruction of one nodal point, even one as important as bin Laden was perceived to be, will not greatly affect the continued viability and operation of the broader network. In fact, networks like this are designed to be able to absorb such losses and reproduce themselves in the face of external pressures. Certainly, the death of bin Laden will not have any direct impact on the al-Qaeda affiliates which operate independently in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Maghreb and elsewhere.
Third, if as the sections of the US government and experts like Rohan Gunaratna and Bruce Hoffman argue, al-Qaeda consists of a hierarchically-organised inner core leadership, surrounded by a second level of loyal cadres and a wider network of supporters and links to other groups, then the death of its leader will be simply followed by a leadership succession – as, in fact, we have since seen with Ayman al-Zawahiri taking over as leader of the group. It is possible that the US government believed that Osama bin Laden was such an effective and charismatic leader that his death would sound the death-knell of the group, but this seems rather unlikely and is, in any case, contradicted by a variety of official statements, including warnings that bin Laden’s death did not mean the end of the group and it continued to pose a security threat, and that retaliatory attacks were possible.
A fourth perspective shared by a few experts like Jason Burke and Christina Hellmich views al-Qaeda as part of a broader pan-Islamist movement which it is parasitic upon, and which it tries to inspire and lead, to greater or lesser effect. According to this viewpoint, the killing of bin Laden will have no significant effect on the broader movement or the local struggles it encompasses, but may add another martyr myth to existing narratives employed in various local struggles to mobilize grassroots activists.
In effect, regardless of which perspective comes closest to the truth of the matter, the killing of bin Laden is unlikely to have any significant impact of the future of al-Qaeda or its capabilities to launch terrorist attacks, if indeed it still has any. Importantly, at the same time, the operation to kill bin Laden carried a number of obvious potential risks, not least to fragile US-Pakistan cooperation in the war on terror and political stability within Pakistan itself. It also risked sparking a new wave of terrorist attacks against US citizens in retaliation from associated jihadist groups, and undermining efforts to reduce anti-Americanism in parts of the Muslim world. More broadly, it risked damage to the international legal order, especially if other states took it as a green light to undertake similar operations to assassinate dissidents on foreign soil.
Given this analysis, it is difficult to perceive exactly what the US hoped to gain by killing bin Laden. That is, considering the predictable outcome for al-Qaeda itself – any number of experts and scholars could have predicted that bin Laden’s death would have little discernible impact on the group or its operations – and the obvious and quite serious risks it entailed, it is puzzling to try and discern what the thinking of the Obama administration really was in giving the order to kill bin Laden, particularly as opposed to the alternative of capturing and handing him over to an international court.
An initial possibility is that it was undertaken simply to fulfill a perceived public demand for justice. In this sense, it was undertaken in large part for reasons of restoring national honour and pride. One problem with this analysis is that the manner of bin Laden’s death in which he was shot dead and his body thrown into the seas actually circumvented the possibility of a full accounting and a more thorough justice for the victims of 9/11. It is undeniable that there are aspects of the attacks which remain unclear, such as al-Qaeda’s real motives and expectations, the assistance they received from other groups or governments, the choice of targets, and so on. Taking bin Laden into custody, followed by a public trial, might have allowed further information to emerge and perhaps given the victims greater satisfaction, much like the trial and execution of Timothy McVeigh did. On the other hand, the manner of bin Laden’s death did fulfill a certain kind of culturally understood, populist notion of justice, in line perhaps with George W. Bush’s initial framing of the task in terms of an old West Most Wanted Poster. In other words, we cannot completely discount the cultural dimension of the decision.
A related possibility is that the operation was authorized largely for domestic political reasons, not least, re-asserting President Obama’s credentials as Commander-in-Chief. It is common knowledge that Democrat presidents are often perceived to be soft on issues of national security, and there had been questions raised about Obama’s handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan. This operation provided the possibility of laying such negative perception to rest. In fact, there is no doubt that this ploy worked extremely well in the short term, as all sides of the political spectrum praised him for his strong leadership and his status as Commander in Chief. However, whether it will provide the president with any long-term political capital is extremely doubtful. Subsequent events like the budget deficit and the global financial crisis appear to have already superseded the feel-good effects of the killing of bin Laden.
A third possibility is that the killing of bin Laden would provide an opening for a new public narrative which would allow the Obama administration to begin to disentangle itself from the various quagmires of the war on terror, particularly the Vietnamesque disaster currently unfolding in Afghanistan. In other words, it may have been thought that the death of bin Laden would allow the administration to claim that not only had justice finally been done and one of America’s primary goals in going into Afghanistan been achieved, but that al-Qaeda was now so weakened that it no longer posed the kind of threat which required a five-front global war on terror. However, since the killing of bin laden, we have not seen any kind of decisive intervention from the administration which might alter the overall narrative of the war on terror and allow for new initiatives. Instead, we have seen a continuation of earlier policies and its supporting rhetoric, including the intensification of drone attacks against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the end, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion other than that the killing of bin Laden has so far had, and will continue to have, little discernible impact on the war on terror or on US counter-terrorism policy more broadly. It has turned out to be the proverbial non-event or simulacrum that is quickly overtaken by other events like the Oslo terrorist attacks, the global economic crisis and the UK riots.
However, more than simply a non-event, I believe it may have also been a classic missed opportunity. Like the 9/11 attacks and other spectacular events before it, the death of bin Laden engendered a collective atmosphere – a discursive opening in the dominant paradigm – within which possibilities for significant policy change became emergent, even if briefly. In other words, the collective sense of relief of finally dealing with bin Laden could have been the opportunity for President Obama to end a series of counter-terrorism measures and policies that have done little but cause human rights abuses and spirals of violence and insecurity around the world. It could also have provided an opportunity to scale back military involvement overseas, reign in military spending, end support for oppressive regimes, build support for international criminal law, and start to address more pressing and serious issues than terrorism, such as global recession, climate change, the Palestine-Israel conflict, famine in Africa, political transition in the Middle East and North Africa, and other pressing issues. Such measures could have been justified and ‘sold’ to the American public in a number of different ways, including on the grounds that bin Laden’s death signaled the end of one stage of the fight against terrorism and the beginning of another, for example.
Apart from starting to divert the astronomical financial costs of the past decade of war on terror, bin Laden’s death could also have been the opportunity for sustained and honest reflection on the deeper normative costs of the operation. The fact is that the global war on terror was initially launched in part to bring him to justice, and since then, a much greater number of civilian lives have been lost than were lost on 9/11 itself. Moreover, the fighting has spread over five fronts: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Not only was Iraq linked to al-Qaeda and the attacks and then invaded and occupied at the cost of over a hundred thousand lives, but drone attacks on the Afghan-Pakistan border region where bin Laden was believed to have been hiding for many years, continue to kill hundreds of civilians every year, on top of the tens of thousands of civilians killed in the initial invasion and occupation. These lives have to be counted as part of the human cost of finally bringing bin Laden to justice. It is also known that hundreds of detainees have been rendered and/or tortured and mistreated in the pursuit of intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts. The so-called Tipton Three, for example, were tortured into confessing that they had met with bin Laden at the same time that CCTV footage proved that they were working in Tipton. In many ways, the ‘justice’ for bin Laden has come at the cost of mass injustice for others.
Related to this, the nature of the operation has had real normative costs for the rule of law and the upholding of established norms in international relations. In the first place, assassinations of this kind are controversial and dangerous, particularly as the United States is viewed as an opinion leader in international affairs. If the world’s remaining superpower and self-appointed guardian of universal values can mount operations to kill its dissidents on foreign soil without a trial, not to mention, use torture extensively to try and get information on the whereabouts of dissidents, this may encourage other nations to follow suit with potentially destabilizing consequences. At the very least, the operation itself was a missed opportunity to strengthen the place of international criminal law in international counter-terrorism cooperation, and perhaps make it more difficult for terrorists to operate internationally in future by strengthening universal jurisdiction.
Finally, the operation provided a missed opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of fighting a ‘war’ on terrorism and the use of force-based counter-terrorism approaches more broadly. Academic research over many decades clearly demonstrates the futility and counter-productive nature of attempting to fight the use of terrorism with equal or greater violence, as studies on Israeli targeted killing demonstrate. The fact is that terrorism is a tactic employed by groups in conflict; unless the roots of the conflict are addressed in a multi-dimensional programme of political reform, social justice, dialogue, community policing, and the like, the use of force will most often only entrench a cycle of violence – as the past ten years of the war on terror have clearly demonstrated. The real pity of the killing of Osama bin Laden is that it has not lead to any deep or sustained reflection on the part of policymakers as to what Western counter-terrorism has really achieved, and where it needs to go from here. We can only hope that this year’s tenth anniversary of 9/11 may begin to do so.
I wrote this article for the next issue of International Studies Today, a publication of the British International Studies Association (BISA). Check it out for a wide range of interesting articles on international affairs, and if you’re interested in international politics, please consider joining BISA.