Web Chat: After Bin Laden

On May 4, Daniel Byman took your questions in a live web chat on what a world without Osama bin Laden means in the fight against terrorism, here in the United States and across the globe.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 David Mark: Welcome to the chat. Let’s get started.

12:30 [Comment From Greg: ] Do you think Bin Laden’s death will have more meaning than a symbolic victory?

12:32 Daniel Byman: The symbolic victory should not be understated. Bin Laden has long been a symbol of defiance against the United States — his followers believed he enjoyed God’s protection because has has been so elusive for so long. His death shatters this image and makes it harder for the group to maintain a special aura. Recruitment and fundraising may suffer as a result.

But the operational impact will be considerable too. Bin Laden orchestrated attacks and helped unify the movement — he will be hard to replace.

12:32 [Comment From Phyllis: ] Will this really debilitate al Qaeda? They already have a successor in place, so it seems like this may not impact their operations much.

12:34 Daniel Byman: Much depends on the skills of Ayman Zawahiri, the al-Qa’ida number two and Bin Laden’s assumed successor. Zawahiri is a seasoned revolutionary. However, he does not have nearly the prestige that Bin Laden has. Moreover, he is often a divider, not a unifier.

In the near term, he will also face a challenge consolidating his leadership. If he communicates with his followers, has meetings, and otherwise seeks to earn their trust — all necessary for a new leader — he exposes himself to being killed by the United States. And his death so soon after Bin Laden’s would be a huge blow.

12:34 [Comment From Amit: ] What do you think the likelihood of a serious retaliation is?

12:36 Daniel Byman: There are two reasons for retaliation beyond al-Qa’ida’s constant desire to do harm to the United States and its allies.

First, there is simply revenge. This may come from al-Qa’ida members, but also from sympathizers who have never gone near Pakistan.

Second, the group may feel the need to prove its relevance. With Bin Laden’s death, some may say al-Qa’ida is “over.” Such a perception means the group may lose funds and recruits, which it cannot afford at this time.

However, much depends on opportunity. Plots rarely happen overnight. Some are in the pipeline for a while, and some depend on chance.

12:36 [Comment From Lana: ] From a domestic perspective, what does this mean for President Obama? A small victory among a myriad of other problems? Or something significant enough to repair damage to his approval ratings?

12:38 Daniel Byman: We’ve already seen post-killing polls that show a significant bump for Obama. As the more mundane reality and partisanship inevitably return, however, Obama’s numbers are likely to return to where they were before the killing.

However, one of the growing Republican criticisms of Obama — that he was a professor too weak to be a Commander in Chief and make tough decisions — becomes far harder to sustain.

In the election, Obama can credibly say “my administration is the one that got Bin Laden.” This will not convince doubters, of course, but it will help him sway people on the fence.

12:39 [Comment From Kevin Erbe: ] Will the death of Bin Laden help to increase recruitment for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations?

12:41 Daniel Byman: Probably not.

Bin Laden’s death comes at a particularly bad time for al-Qa’ida. In the Middle East, democratic revolutions are transforming the region. Bin Laden is seen by many as “old news,” while the youth in particular have a new model: the courageous demonstrators in Tahrir Square and elsewhere who are using peaceful methods to achieve political change.

And Bin Laden’s death will be mourned by some, but it is likely to lead to tremendous anger or otherwise increase recruitment. Indeed, it is more likely that some would-be militants will see it as a “losing” organization and join other groups or not join up at all.

12:41 [Comment From Kevin Erbe: ] What is the single most important policy direction the US government should take to further capitalize on the bin Laden killing? Would a diplomatic approach or a military approach be most beneficial?

12:43 Daniel Byman: The United States should consider several steps. First, it needs to help the “Arab spring” succeed (see my previous response) so there is a new model. Second, the pressure on the al-Qa’ida core in Pakistan needs to continue. Organizations that are disrupted often make further mistakes, and we might be able to create a snowball effect. Third, attention should focus more on al-Qa’ida affiliates (in Yemen, Algeria, etc.) which now may carry much of the water.

12:43 [Comment From BFG: ] What threat level can be expected in the immediate, short- and long-term in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the killing of UBL?

12:46 Daniel Byman: In Pakistan in particular there will be popular outrage as well as sympathy from the many Pakistani organizations that have some sympathy for al-Qa’ida. So it is not good to be an American there.

The biggest question, and the one that is receiving more attention as the glow from Bin Laden’s killing fades, concerns the government of Pakistan. There have long been strong doubts about its commitment to fighting terrorism, particularly given its substantial and open support for the Taliban (not the same thing as supporting al-Qa’ida, but the two overlap). Finding out that Bin Laden was staying in a Pakistani city in suspicious circumstances leads us to two possibilities: 1. gross incompetence on the part of Pakistan’s intelligence services or (really and) 2. Pakistani complicity in hiding Bin Laden. #2 could involve elements of Pakistan’s service and not go all the way up, but given Pakistan’s support for other jihadist activity it is hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.

12:47 [Comment From Amb. Don Bandler: ] What is the significance of Bin Laden’s death in the context of the “Arab Spring?” What are the best estimates of the cadres from around the world who will seek revenge.

12:49 Daniel Byman: The cadre estimates are all over the map. A standard one is that there are a few hundred al-Qa’ida members in Pakistan and a hundred or so more fighting in Afghanistan. This tidy estimate, however, is thrown off by the protean nature of al-Qa’ida. Al-Qa’ida has fighters it has trained who are not members, it has affiliate groups that have thousands of members, and it has individuals who sympathize with all or part of its agenda. So “what is al-Qa’ida?” is a very tricky question.

In my view the Arab Spring is a huge blow to al-Qa’ida. It is a direct refutation of the organization’s narrative — that only violence, preferably anti-U.S. violence — can bring about political change. Bin Laden’s death represents a symbolic victory in this context, as discussed above, and also an operational blow.

So the timing is excellent.

12:50 [Comment From Guest: ] Do you think that the Obama administration will use the death of Bin Laden as a pretext for speeding up the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan?

12:52 Daniel Byman: The death of Bin Laden offers the administration political space in which to change course if it so chooses. And many people questioned whether it would be able to draw down rapidly from Afghanistan as it promised initially. Given the President’s personal commitment to the campaign in Afghanistan, I would be surprised if he substantially accelerates a drawdown. In fact, I think the death of Bin Ladin gives him more credibility to convince skeptics in his own party that the United States should continue its considerable military engagement in Afghanistan. But this issue is still to be determined.

12:52 [Comment From Guest: ] Do you think there will be a leadership struggle between Zawahiri and other top-level Al Qaeda figures?

12:54 Daniel Byman: Al-Qa’ida seems to have a succession plan, and Zawahiri is clearly the anointed one.

However, he is a much more divisive figure, and he lacks Bin Laden’s charisma. When he ran the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, there were repeated leadership challenges, and he had to step down (but then stepped back up) after one particularly disastrous period.

Moreover, some of the affiliate organizations may be more likely to go their own way, increasing their own fundraising and publicity efforts.

12:54 [Comment From Bill in Va.: ] I’ve heard some say that because we had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, bin Laden couldn’t stay there and so went to Pakistan. Does that validate 10 years of Afghan war strategy?

12:57 Daniel Byman: Certainly Afghanistan is a different place since the fall of the Taliban. When the Taliban ruled, Bin Laden enjoyed support from a protective government. After it fell from power, there was a hostile but weak government (Karzai) and U.S. troops to back it up. Without the U.S. troops Afghanistan would be a more attractive haven for Bin Ladin, but given how much support his organization has in Pakistan I’m not sure he would have moved back.

We must remember that while we think of pre-9/11 al-Qa’ida as an organization based in Afghanistan because that is where Bin Laden was, it was an organization founded in Pakistan. Much of its logistics network was and is in Pakistan. So it has a strong presence there.

12:57 [Comment From Jon: ] Do you think that the Obama administration should release photos of Bin Laden’s body? What effect do you think this would have in the international arena?

12:59 Daniel Byman: I do think the admininstration should have (and still should) release the photos. They will be bloody and gross, and inevitably there will be charges of not respecting a fallen foe that U.S. enemies will use. But the photos are part of political closure on this issue. Although the DNA evidence is conclusive in a way a photo will never be, the photo will be more persuasive to many people, particularly in conspiracy-prone countries in the Muslim world. Inevitably, there will be charges that the photos are faked, but as the weeks and months go by with no response from Bin Laden, only the diehards will still believe he is alive.

1:00 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, folks.