In the age of irregular warfare following Sept. 11, 2001, measuring victory has proved difficult and politically contentious. But no one can argue with Sunday night’s news: The United States has finally killed Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the attacks of that terrible day and the deadliest terrorist of the modern age. After nearly 3,000 civilians died on that clear Tuesday morning, President George W. Bush promised to “get him.” Almost a decade later, it fell to his successor, President Obama, to order a covert operation in Pakistan to deliver on that promise and remark that “justice has now been done.”
The obvious question: Is America safer now?
The war on terror was never going to end like World War II, with a formal surrender signed on the deck of a battleship, with a cease-fire or any formal peace settlement. Our enemy is not a nation with a government or conventional military forces. It may be that terrorism can never be defeated - simply suppressed. In the past decade, America has been very successful in suppressing al Qaeda.
After the United States toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his top commanders were forced to go on the run. While they have since provided inspiration to potential terrorists, such as would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, al Qaeda’s capacity to plan and execute mass-casualty attacks has been greatly diminished.
Both the quality and success rate of the attacks al Qaeda has planned or encouraged against the United States have fallen tremendously. The only one that resulted in deaths on U.S. soil was Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s mass shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009.
Yet we cannot write off al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was created when bin Laden united the Mujahideen Service Bureau, which had recruited Arabs to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Egyptian terrorist group Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Muslim Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahri founded Islamic Jihad in hopes of destroying the apostate government in Cairo. Yesterday, al-Zawahri was al Qaeda’s second in command, but its most important source of ideological motivation. If he’s still alive today, he will surely become bin Laden’s successor.
With bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda’s appeal has undoubtedly been reduced, but the group was always built to survive the death of its founder. In a way, bin Laden was only the latest and greatest in a line of nasty terrorists who drew inspiration from Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood beginning in the 1920s.
In the coming weeks, al Qaeda’s followers around the world will react to the news of the their charismatic leader’s death. Fortunately, even if a handful of bin Laden’s most passionate followers go on to plot future attacks, in what author and former CIA operative Marc Sageman once called “leaderless jihad,” they will most likely lack the knowledge and training to do serious harm.
Yet the death of one man - even bin Laden himself - is far less important than the broader questions of regional politics and the issue of government-sanctioned safe havens. Objectively, al Qaeda posed the greatest threat to America when it had a state-sponsored sanctuary, whether in 1993, when it was being run out of Sudan and executed the first World Trade Center attack, or 2001, when it had the support of the Taliban and finally succeeded in bringing down the Twin Towers.
Even if al-Zawahri takes control of al Qaeda, the group will not pose as great a threat to America as it has in the past, unless it finds a new state sanctuary in which to reconstitute its ranks without fear of reprisals.
It is now up to the president’s top men, former Central Command head and newly designated CIA Director Gen. David H. Petraeus, and soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, to ensure that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan becomes that sanctuary.
Sebastian V. Gorka is director of the National Security Fellows Programat the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and teaches irregular warfare at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. He is contributing co-editor of “Toward a Grand Strategy Against Terrorism” (McGraw Hill, 2011).