A sense of justice has been satisfied, but are we safer?

Exterior shot of the bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan.
REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood
Exterior shot of the bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan.

LONDON — President Obama’s stunning announcement that U.S. Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden leaves open the question of how much this strike at the head of al-Qaida damages the international terrorist organization.

A more basic but critical question is whether we are safer today than we were before the American assault force dropped from helicopters onto a mansion near Islamabad, Pakistan, to kill the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Tom Maertens of Mankato was deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism in the U.S. State Department during the time of the 9/11 attacks. I asked him the question of whether bin Laden’s killing makes us more or less safe.

“I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” Maertens said. “There were threats earlier that if bin Laden was killed there was a plan in place to conduct retaliation against anybody that might have been involved.”

At this point, al-Qaida may have been weakened, Maertens said: “But so many of the copycats and other extremist organizations could take action. … It doesn’t take much to get them stirred up especially if this is seen as some sort of an affront to Islam.”

Generally, though, Maertens said, “We are better off with him dead than alive.”

Justice and symbolism
Certainly, a deep sense of justice has been satisfied. That was important in the United States and around the world.

Also important is the symbolism Obama addressed in his speech Sunday night. As long as the alleged leader of the 9/11 attacks on America escaped punishment, people in large parts of the world saw the United States as weak and vulnerable.

The reverse side of that symbol was an image of bin Laden as dragon slayer – the little guy effectively taking on the world’s most powerful force and prevailing. It was potent symbolism that no doubt inspired many a jihadist.

Now one of the many questions we’ll be mulling and debating is whether bin Laden’s death diminishes the power of that symbol or strengthens it. One reason the United States reportedly buried his body at sea is to erase chances a burial site would become a shrine to his cause.

“Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to America,” the White House said in a press briefing late Sunday.

We’ll see.

Al-Qaida’s many faces
The al-Qaida that Americans came to know so horribly in 2001 was the core group around bin Laden. That old face “still provides strategic direction to the group and to the larger jihadist community,” Bruce Riedel wrote recently for The Daily Beast. Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

But that nearly 10-year-old face is not alone in al-Qaida’s leadership ranks today.

Another face is the syndicate of terror networks aligned with al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Riedel wrote, citing several examples: The Pakistani Taliban, responsible for the failed Times Square attack last May; Lashkar-e-Taiba, which attacked Mumbai almost two years ago, the Afghanistan Taliban forces behind the deadly attack on the CIA base in Khost on Dec. 31, 2009.

The operatives in all of those cases worked through organizations allied with bin Laden’s core group, Riedel said, effectively acting as force multipliers for al-Qaida.

Osama bin Laden
REUTERS/U.S. State Dept
Osama bin Laden

Yet another face is presented by regional franchises operating across Northern Africa and the Middle East. The ones in Yemen and Somalia are the most dangerous, Riedel said, and “even the much diminished franchise in Iraq continues to strike periodically.”

Add to those three faces, the self-starters — individual jihadists who take up the cause in their own way, such as the gunman in the Fort Hood massacre.

“Finally there is the idea, the narrative and ideology of al-Qaida,” Riedel said.

This may be the greatest reason to worry that bin Laden could come back symbolically to continue threatening the West. Way back in the 1980s, he and a partner gave rise to the idea of a global war against the United States and its allies.

“The idea is now in many ways independent of the group that created it,” Riedel said. “Only a very small minority of Muslims believes in global jihad but even a handful of determined suicidal murderers can change the fate of nations.”

A short-term threat comes from the worry that al-Qaida’s operatives will move to avenge his death.

“There is little doubt that extremists somewhere — al Qaeda or others — will attempt revenge,” said Maertens. “In fact, there were something like eight failed attacks on the U.S. last year that were disrupted by law enforcement/intelligence agency efforts. One day, one of these attacks will succeed and will be portrayed as revenge for Osama bin Laden’s death, but Islamic extremists have never really stopped their plotting; it is just that we are now more alert and better prepared.”

Airports around the world began beefing up security last night and today.

The U.S. State Department called on Sunday for worldwide caution on the part of U.S. citizens, citing “the enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan.”

It urged U.S. citizens living or travelling in anti-American hot spots to “limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations.”

In London, the British Foreign Office said Britons overseas should “exercise caution in all public places and avoid demonstrations, large crowds of people and public events,” the BBC reported.

Obama phoned British Prime Minister David Cameron with the news before dawn in London on Monday, a couple of hours before the public announcement in Washington, the BBC said.

Cameron told the BBC: “This news will be welcomed right across our country. Of course, it does not mark the end of the threat we face from extremist terror — indeed we will have to be particularly vigilant in the weeks ahead. But it is, I believe, a massive step forward.”

Double blow to al-Qaida
Although Americans had to wait nine years to see this punishment of the man alleged to have instigated the 9/11 attacks, the timing of this strike may be particularly effective because it comes in tandem with the so-called Arab Spring.

Al-Qaida’s dominant position in news of the Muslim and Arab world has given way to visions of new forces for change. The faces of demonstrators demanding democracy and freedom in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries have replaced the menacing jihadist leaders and suicide bombers.  

Elliott Abrams — a former top national advisor on the Middle East during the administration of George W. Bush — criticized some details in the text and tone of Obama’s announcement, saying the U.S. president took too much credit for himself.

But Abrams said the timing of this strike on the al-Qaida leader is particularly effective given the Arab Spring.

Here is what Abrams said, writing for his blog at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations where he is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies:

“Al Qaida’s message that violence, terrorism, and extremism are the only answer for Arabs seeking dignity and hope is being rejected each day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and throughout the Arab lands.  Al Qaida and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption. Bin Laden’s death weakens al Qaida and Salafi movements further by taking away their most powerful symbol.”

Maertens summed the effects this way: “The event is important in many different ways, including for example, the relief the Saudis must be feeling at Osama bin Laden’s demise, perhaps compensation for their bruised feelings at the way we so readily abandoned our ally Mubarak.  Power and influence are dependent on many factors.  Military forces are one of those factors; the manner and effectiveness in which we use those forces determine how other countries and non-governmental actors view the U.S.  We are standing taller in world opinion today than we were yesterday.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/02/2011 - 10:56 am.

    The real problem is the decade that it took to get to this place.

    In that 10 years we performed in ways that alienated many of our allies, inflamed the rise of radical Islam, and detracted from human rights.

    The way I see it, it was like an incomplete anti-biotic course–the bacteria was strengthened and spread by half-measures rather than eradicated.

    So yes, it is great that Osama is dead, but the infection remains and it is more wide-spread, thanks to the decade-long dithering that was only resolved yesterday.

  2. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 05/02/2011 - 11:24 am.

    I have a great curiosity about the compound in Abbotabad. I believe I just heard on MPR (which still operates in spite of the quivering shaft of the GOP in its heart) that the compound was built in 2005.

    Does it seem odd to anyone else that something of that size and secrecy could be built near Pakistan’s capitol without raising an eyebrow or two, locally and internationally? That this huge (and expensive) compound did not also raise antennae?

    For several years, Michael Moore has been saying that billionaire bin Laden is/was highly unlikely to be living the life of a mountain goat in the wild. Turns out he was right. Again.

    Obviously, none of this passes the smell test. There is much we don’t yet know (and likely never will).

    As to justice vs. vengeance, someone far wiser than I pointed out that justice by definition involves the judiciary (however flawed). I’m glad bin Laden’s individual contribution to massive evil has ended. But I do see this more as vengeance than justice. And it is certain radical terrorists will define it that way.

    Finally, our own radical right in America will be moving heaven and earth to drive splinters and wedges among us. One of the things they fear the most is that Americans will somehow find each other and come together again. Unity is anathema to their agenda.

    Clearly, this death has multiple, far-reaching implications.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2011 - 11:29 am.

    Neither Islam nor Christianity have, historically, been especially tolerant of one another, or of any other forms of belief and / or disbelief (e.g., Jews, atheists), and my distrust of theocracy leads me to be cautious about whether Bin Laden’s departure makes us more or less safe. Religion, at least up to this point, plays a larger role in Middle Eastern societies than it does in the West. As a Westerner, I regard that separation of religion and government as a good thing, but there are plenty on the right who don’t seem to mind the idea of theocracy in the United States, and would like to see church / state separation go away. Should that happen, it’s not just the end of religious freedom. It’s also not inconceivable that a widening of the traditional hostility between Islam and Christianity could take place.

    A similar cautious attitude might serve us well before we all decide that the killing of Osama bin Laden ends the threat of terrorism, or that it increases it. Bin Laden’s death does, it seems to me, eliminate the rationale for much of our military presence in the Middle East – unless, of course, we’re really there for so crass and obvious a reason as…um…oil, and “terrorism” simply provided a convenient rationale.

    There are lots of interesting ramifications here, and not all are pleasant, so I’m inclined to wait and see what happens, both in Washington and elsewhere. I’m also inclined to lean toward Neal Rovick’s criticism. If Special Forces took Bin Laden out, why couldn’t it have been done a decade (and thousands of lives) ago?

    With the rationale for our military presence now eliminated, at least symbolically, it seems delusional for us as a society to expect to find a lot of “friends of the United States” in those areas where we’ve killed, literally, thousands of civilians, including many, many children, in our efforts to suppress Al-Qaeda and / or the Taliban, wrecked the economies of a pair of countries, and mounted a full-scale war when, obviously, a very small-scale but potent strike force was all that was necessary. It’s going to be a while before all the chips from this latest strike fall to the ground.

  4. Submitted by donald maxwell on 05/02/2011 - 01:18 pm.

    For those of us who do not believe anything that comes out of the White House, the matter is still open. A burial at sea makes sure that there is no confirmation of anything other than that the President of the United States can order the killing of anybody anywhere anytime.

    I don’t expect that jihadists will trust this news or in any way change their behavior except to resort to even more violent measures.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/02/2011 - 03:31 pm.

    Future historians may well call this Number 1 0n the list of Worst Legislation of All Time:

    S.J.Res.23, Authorization for Use of Military Force, 107th Congress (2001-2002)———

    (a) IN GENERAL – That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

    (b) says the resolution is consistent with the War Powers Resolution.

    Al-Queda arose in response to what bin Laden and others felt were unacceptable intrusions into the sovereignty of their countries. Definitely not, as President Bush remarked, that they “hated our freedoms.”

    Have we done anything in the past ten years to cause offended Middle Eastern citizens to change their minds about us? Or have we, by our phony war for oil on Iraq and our “necessary” war in Afghanistan and our drones within Pakistan, plus the infrastructure destruction and the large numbers of civilians killed in each country (especially Iraq)guaranteed further resentment of our presence and therefore further attacks here or elsewhere?

  6. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 05/02/2011 - 04:29 pm.

    I tend to be politically conservative but not too worried that Bin Laden’s death was faked.
    apparently his head was blown open with a bullet so there should be a lot of remaining DNA material. I assume that everything was photographed but the “money shots” are being tightly held so they won’t go viral on the internet.

    Videos and stills of the compound have been released and these seem to contain a lot of bloodstains. If there are private showings of the “money shots” the released compound pics and vids can be a reference.

    Basically, I don’t see much conspiracy material here.

    It will be hard to prove either way but most “jihadists/zealots”, at least higher up the food chain do not seek to die for their cause. it’s like the idea that our organised crime has a harder time recruiting and thus declines if the “made guys” all get retirement in “club fed” (or “club dead”).

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/02/2011 - 04:50 pm.

    I wonder if some of us carry the same skepticism regarding “White House” announcements no matter who is president or is such doubt reserved only for Democrats (or non-whites)?

  8. Submitted by will lynott on 05/02/2011 - 06:36 pm.

    This could and should have happened a decade ago, in the mountains on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We all know why it didn’t.

    I like to fantasize that Bush, had bin Laden been caught back then, would have immediately announced “Mission Accomplished!”, pulled the military out of Afghanistan (since we had no further interests there–still don’t, come to that), and accepted the victory as sufficient to stroke his “Wartime President” ego without getting us into any pointless military actions that only bled our country without accomplishing anything that furthered any of its interests.

    I’ve just looked back over what I just wrote. Gee whiz, I must be balmy. Why would I think such things about the president of the United States?

  9. Submitted by will lynott on 05/02/2011 - 07:50 pm.

    Conspiracy?? OMG people, are you kidding?

    You must think that if Osama was alive he wouldn’t be on the air, as he has been so many times before, holding up a newspaper with today’s date on it and hoorawing the US.

    Take off the tinfoil hats. Nothing happened at Roswell, the moon landing was not faked on a sound stage in Nevada, and Osama is DEAD.

    I know you hate the President, but, gee whiz, Osama is dead and it happened on Obama’s watch, not Bush’s. Get over it.

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 05/03/2011 - 12:39 am.

    “For those of us who do not believe anything that comes out of the White House, the matter is still open.”

    What is clearly not open is that no matter what Obama does, the racists in our country will never give him credit for anything.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/03/2011 - 06:03 am.

    To conspiracy theorists: it’s getting boring. To bitter republicans: If you couldn’t it done in 8 years, it’s your problem.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/03/2011 - 08:53 am.

    Gregory (#6) — See the May 2 The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) for a phony photograph of the “dead” bin Laden that rattled around the internet a couple of years ago. You might call it a headshot since it features a bullet hole that destroyed one eye.

    It’ll probably be coming around again.

  13. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/03/2011 - 10:58 am.

    Barbara made an excellent point that everyone seems to have missed.

    This was revenge not justice.

    Although I do appreciate the expediency of it’s kind of like the Nixon pardon. Time to move on.

  14. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 05/04/2011 - 06:53 am.

    Has the death of Osama Bin Laden made Al-Qaeda weaker? Perhaps the more important question is whether nearly a decade of War on Terror has made us any better off.

    Now that Bin Laden is no more, perhaps we can think more critically about the use of war as an anti-terrorist tactic, and with cooler heads. Part of this reflection should be a careful accounting of the costs of this colossal manhunt, both in treasure and in human blood.

    How much money did this long campaign cost? How many good men and women in our military lost their lives, or suffered debilitating permanent injuries? How many civilians were killed, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time?

    It is also worth thinking about the road the Bush administration chose not to take. From the beginning, we might have of co-operated with our allies, rather than ignore their advice; we might have used and strengthened international law, rather than break it and weaken it; we might have more carefully distinguished the innocent from the evildoers, rather than drop bombs that killed both; and we might have distinguished ourselves more clearly from the terrorists, rather than blur the distinction by practicing torture.

    Had we taken the moral high road, Bin Laden’s defeat might have been a lasting moral victory, rather than a cathartic, but geopolitically insignificant act of vengeance that is likely to provoke more of the same.

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