A year after the death of Osama bin Laden, the United States continues to fight the former al Qaeda leader’s terrorist network at home and abroad. While the raid on bin Laden’s compound proved a major victory for the nation a decade after 9/11, al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to find safe harbor around the world and are renewing their threats against the U.S. and its allies.
How has al Qaeda evolved since the death of bin Laden, and what danger does it pose to the United States? What might victory in the “war on terror” ultimately look like?
On Wednesday, May 2, Brookings expert Daniel Byman took your questions in a live web chat with moderator Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:31 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.
12:31 Comment From Brian G: A recent Obama campaign ad questions whether a Romney administration would have ordered the raid on bin Laden. Do you agree with some of the criticism out there that Obama is “politicizing” what should be a victory for the American people?
12:32 Daniel Byman: I think that it is natural that politicians of all parties take credit for the good things that happen under their watch. So of course much (most) of the credit goes to the intelligence and military folks who made this happen, but the president deserves credit for ordering a risky operation that could have easily backfired — and that his opponents would not have hesitated to use to criticize him should it have failed.
12:32 Comment From Anne: Did the death of bin Laden strike a serious blow to al Qaeda? A year later, are we safer than we were when he was alive and hiding in Pakistan?
12:33 Daniel Byman: We are definitely safer than we were a year ago.
The standard line, which I endorse, is that al Qaeda is “down but not out.” So the death of bin Laden, and other blows to senior leaders, have hurt the organization. And the Arab Spring has damaged the appeal of its message. But it remains intact, and its affiliates remain strong (though most are more focused locally). So we can’t count al Qaeda out, but that shouldn’t mean that we don’t feel safer with bin Laden dead.
12:33 Comment From Kristina Wong: Can you talk about al Qaeda as a movement and ideology versus an organization? Can you describe whether AQ as a movement/ideology has broad appeal, and why? Is it growing appeal?
12:35 Daniel Byman: Al Qaeda’s appeal remains strong. I would not say it is “growing,” but one of bin Laden’s accomplishments is that he took a fringe ideology and made aspects of it palatable. Far more Muslims see the United States as a bitter enemy and support the use of violence against civilians than did when bin Laden formed al Qaeda in 1988. Support is down from the peak years after the initial U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, but the numbers remain sizable.
Why is a good question. Some object to U.S. policies (military presence in the Middle East, support for autocratic regimes, support for Israel, etc.), and others are hostile to Western values (women’s rights, rights for gays, and so on). Still others simply join to be part of a cause. So it’s a bit of a mix.
12:35 Comment From Adriane M: Do you think terrorism will become a focal point of the 2012 election? Normally the GOP wields the more hawkish candidate, but it appears as though Obama is going to have the upper hand in this election.
12:37 Daniel Byman: I think that terrorism is not likely to play an important part in the election, barring another significant attack on the United States. Obama was able to take this issue — normally a loser for Democrats — off the table by killing bin Laden. But I don’t think many people are going to vote for him because of his tough counterterrorism measures. But he won’t be hit as John Kerry was (unfairly) for being weak on terrorism.
So it will primarily revolve around the economy. I don’t think other foreign policy issues will matter much either, for better or for worse.
12:37 Comment From Marco M: What might victory in the “war on terror” ultimately look like?
12:38 Daniel Byman: This is a difficult question. Bush administration officials talked of victory as when Americans live their lives without the fear of terrorism, and I think that is a sensible approach. However, by this standard we may be there — yes, of course some people are afraid, but terrorism fears seem largely to have faded to the background.
12:38 Comment From Gianne: Other al Qaeda affiliates now seem to be gaining strength in places like Yemen and Africa. Is terrorism an issue that the U.S. is going to have to strategically deal with looking towards the long term?
12:40 Daniel Byman: The affiliate question is a knotty one. (Warning: self-promotion alert. I have a Brookings paper coming out on this in a week or two.)
On the one hand the affiliates are pledged to al Qaeda and have increasingly become international in their focus. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has even done al Qaeda core-like attacks on the U.S. homeland. On the other hand, most remain focused on their country in question, and taking them on is resource intensive and may backfire if it makes them even more anti-U.S. So part of the strategy is figuring out which are the most dangerous and allocating resources accordingly.
12:40 Comment From Tiffany Q: The amount of raids by U.S. special forces against terrorist cells around the world seems to have drastically increased under the Obama administration. Are our special forces showing signs of strain?
12:42 Daniel Byman: There is heavy wear on the special forces community. This community has expanded dramatically since 9/11, and the end of the large U.S. troop presence in Iraq has helped ease the strain a lot (special forces did a lot of work in Iraq in conjunction with conventional forces). Drawing down from Afghanistan won’t help as much as, from what I understand, the special operations forces will continue to play a heavy role.
12:42 Comment From Bill in Va: I heard one criticism of the president is that he still isn’t really making a strong case about Pakistan to the American people — or Yemen for that matter. These places are getting as bad as Afghanistan was 11 years ago. Is he soft-pedaling these areas?
12:43 Daniel Byman: Yes and no. On the one hand, Pakistan may be the most difficult foreign policy issue facing the administration. And they have given a lot of attention to it. But the policy is not one that requires a high level of public engagement (as would, say, a military intervention in Syria). Moreover, the policy is nuanced (at best) and reactive or conflicted (at worse), and that doesn’t make for a good public statement.
12:44 Comment From Mark, Greenbelt, MD: Where is the focus/leadership of al Qaeda now? Who’s leading the organization, and where is it strongest?
12:45 Daniel Byman: Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is clearly in charge. He has long been the #2 and very important in his own right, and he is well known to the organization. Key figures and affiliates seemed to have pledged loyalty to him. However, he is leading a weaker organization than bin Laden did.
12:45 Comment From Roberto: How do you see Iraq and Afghanistan fairing after the U.S. withdrawals its troops? Will terrorist violence bring the countries back to the brink of war?
12:47 Daniel Byman: Iraq already has a low-level civil war going on, and Afghanistan’s more serious one shows little sign of abating before the U.S. drawdown and then withdrawal in the coming years.
In Iraq, terrorism stokes the fire, but the real problem is the venality and power-hungry nature of many Iraqi leaders, particularly Maliki. Good leadership could defeat a weak al Qaeda there, but terrorism is likely to remain a problem. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda is close to the Taliban. The Taliban are likely to grow in power as the U.S. withdraws and the Afghan government remains corrupt and weak.
12:48 Comment From Guest: Do you consider there to be adequate priority given to the MENA AQ affiliates or the second generation of home-grown radicals in the U.S., Europe or other U.S. allies / Western “style” democracies?
12:50 Daniel Byman: If I have the question right, I think that it’s often the interaction of the individuals in the West (fewer in number, but dangerous due to their citizenship and knowledge of Western civilization), and organized groups overseas. Individuals can go abroad and radicalize further, get training and join in a broader organization, all of which makes them much more dangerous.
Affiliates are of concern as they tie into diaspora groups, which gives them strong networks in selected parts of the Western world (e.g. Pakistanis in the UK, Algerians in France, and so on).
12:50 Comment From Christopher: President Obama has recently talked about a “U.S. pivot towards Asia.” Are our allies in the Middle East afraid we will abandon them in the coming years?
12:51 Daniel Byman: Allies in the Middle East are less afraid we’ll abandon them due to the “pivot” and more afraid due to US policy in the Arab Spring. I think it was the right move to turn on Mubarak, but from the point of view of many regional allies the United States unceremoniously dumped an ally of many decades in a matter of days. That doesn’t exactly give them confidence that the United States will always stand by them.
12:51 Comment From Connor H: Would you be able to speak on social-policy solutions to terrorism, extremism and al Qaeda — that is, non-militaristic solutions — being pursued by the Obama administration and the international community? And how does the recent Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement fit into that non-military, political, social sphere?
12:53 Daniel Byman: The Afghanistan strategic partnership is largely about the military partnership (or, more broadly, security as there is probably a strong intel relationship being forged). In general, a number of countries in different parts of the world (Singapore, Saudi Arabia, the UK, etc.) have explored “deradicalization” programs that try to either turn existing terrorists/radicals into peaceful folks or to stop people from becoming radicalized in the first place. Part of this is akin to working with gangs and others within a community to change the nature of the community. But there aren’t really good answers for this. Standard tools — say education and economic support — don’t really correlate with success. (Terrorists often have jobs and are relatively well-educated).
12:54 Comment From Brandon: Are there other terrorist organizations in the region that are not al Qaeda and pose a threat to the U.S.?
12:55 Daniel Byman: Al Qaeda and its affiliates are easily the most dangerous threat to the United States. Groups like Hezbollah are very capable but do not appear to be actively targeting the United States (that could change with, say, a US strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Iran is Hezbollah’s patron). Right-wing groups in the U.S. also should remain on the radar screen.
12:55 Comment From Benjamin R: What do you think of Pakistan’s role in all of this? How can we still be allies after they hid bin Laden all those years?
12:57 Daniel Byman: The degree of Pakistan’s culpability in all this is debated — and to me it is one of the key analytic questions. It is hard for me to imagine that no Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. What I don’t know is how high up this went and — if it didn’t go up that high — whether senior Pakistani leaders deliberately chose not to know.
It is amazing to me that after giving Pakistan tens of billions in aid to fight al Qaeda after 9/11, when the key moment comes, the United States decides that Pakistan cannot be trusted.
12:57 Comment From Kristina Wong: Reports about the Osama bin Laden document release say the documents show that he was in contact with Taliban leadership and perhaps planned to make a comeback in Afghanistan. In your estimation, how real is the possibility that al Qaeda successfully reestablishes itself in Afghanistan after international troops draw down, and what U.S./Afghan/NATO measures could possibly prevent it in the timeframe before that?
12:59 Daniel Byman: I think that al Qaeda is not likely to establish a large-scale presence in Afghanistan akin to what it had before 9/11 after U.S. and allied forces draw down. The U.S. would continue to back the Afghan government, do special operations raids and of course use the drone program. So small and decentralized things are possible and likely, but big training camps and an open leadership is unlikely and can be stopped. The key is to make sure that the draw down ensures the United States still has some ability to operate.
12:59 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions, see you next week!