The death of Osama bin Laden is an epochal moment in counterterrorism. In the greater struggle of the civilized world against the jihadist movement, however, it is just one of many milestones along the road.
Bin Laden’s death satisfied the American sense of justice. The perpetrator of the most devastating terror attack on U.S. soil could not rightly escape ultimate punishment for his deadly crimes. Eliminating bin Laden also bolstered American credibility. “It was important to make good on President Bush’s promise to bring him in dead or alive,” former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told The Washington Times. “The United States has achieved that.” Promise made, promise kept.
We asked Mr. Ridge what the impact of bin Laden’s death would be on the greater Islamist movement, and he said “Not much.” The struggle against jihadist extremism is “the defining challenge of this generation,” and in the context of the global Islamist movement, bin Laden was just one man. He was vitally important in promoting and extending the movement, but he represented neither its beginning nor its end. “We killed the man but not the ideology,” Mr. Ridge said.
Islamism is a threat because its tenets are irreconcilable with western liberalism. The self-evident truths that underlie American democracy are not only foreign to Islamist thought, they are inimical to it. Individual liberty, freedom of thought and faith, respect for women, democratic government and capitalism are fundamental to contemporary western life but abhorrent to the Islamist creed. This is the battleground on which the current war of ideas is being fought. Islamism and the American way of life cannot peaceably coexist.
Over the years the challenge to western civilization posed by Islamism has metastasized. “The threat is now more diverse and more complex,” Mr. Ridge said. It goes well beyond al Qaeda to include movements like the Taliban; Pakistan’s Lashkar-e Taiba, which perpetrated the November 2008 Mumbai massacre; Lebanese Hezbollah; the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Brotherhood’s harder-line cousins, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (The Party of Islamic Liberation). The Islamist challenge also includes state actors, in particular Iran, which since 1979 has actively promoted the extremist views of the father of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The United States has fought many battles with al Qaeda, but these are the members of the jihadist coalition that define the scope of the war.
Mr. Ridge spoke Thursday at the launch of a new initiative, the World Almanac of Islamism, developed by the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. The Almanac is “a comprehensive resource designed to track the rise or decline of radical Islam on a national, regional and global level.” It is an online source for information intended to give policymakers, scholars and anyone interested in the topic a one-stop location for objective, nonpartisan information about the growing Islamist movement.
With bin Laden dead, the U.S. pulling out of Iraq and gearing up for withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a risk that policymakers and the public will tune the Islamist challenge out. This would be a mistake. Declining American influence in the Mideast, coupled with the recent wave of uprisings in the region, preset unprecedented opportunities for Islamist movements to promote their ideology and seek to take control of more countries. If this happens, the future challenges for the United States will be even greater than those posed by al Qaeda at the peak of bin Laden’s power and influence. Taking down Osama bin Laden “was a successful singular operation,” Mr. Ridge said, “but there is still a lot of work to do.”