The U.S. special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan is a devastating blow to al Qaeda. The terrorist organization and the movement it leads now face a potential leadership void and internal divisions. But the battle is far from over: aggressive U.S. and allied action — including military, and particularly, intelligence measures — are necessary to make a bad situation worse for al Qaeda.
Let’s begin with some notes of caution. As any expert will tell you, one of bin Laden’s biggest successes is creating an organization that will survive him. When bin Laden and a few associates founded al Qaeda in 1988, the organization was tiny and relied on the Saudi millionaire for the bulk of its funding. In subsequent years the organization has grown to support insurgents throughout the Muslim world, issued propaganda swaying the views of millions and, of course, murdered thousands through terrorism and its participation in civil wars. Thousands were asked to formally join the organization, and tens of thousands received training. So al Qaeda will not collapse overnight.
Indeed, in the short term it is possible that terrorism may increase. Some jihadists may seek revenge, lashing out at any target that is convenient. Al Qaeda’s remaining senior leaders may also try to orchestrate attacks to demonstrate the organization’s continued relevance. They may hurry up plots already gestating or hit unprotected — so-called “soft” — targets that take little preparation to strike.
These caveats and warnings should not overshadow the potential benefits of bin Laden’s death. Bin Laden was an unusual terrorist leader. Those who followed him described him as humble and modest in his personal behavior, a millionaire who risked his wealth and life to serve God. He was exceptionally charismatic, inspiring many of those who met him, and an even greater number who saw his videos or read about him on the Internet, to devote their lives to jihad.
One of bin Laden’s most important characteristics was that he tolerated different points of view within the extremist community, unifying a movement prone to divisions. Some terrorists have tried to undercut, weaken, or even kill rivals and dissenters, but bin Laden was a unifying figure. In Egypt, Iraq, the Maghreb, and elsewhere he worked with local groups and leaders, even as he tried, often successfully, to sway them to his more global agenda. Other Sunni jihadists disagree on everything from which regimes to target first and whether to strike Shiite Muslims or others who are not part of the Sunni mainstream to how much care to take regarding the deaths of civilians. For his part, bin Laden was a steady and constant voice praising those who deliberately killed civilians and urging jihadists to focus first and foremost on the United States as their priority target.
Any successor is likely to have fewer of these qualities. Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy who is assumed to be bin Laden’s immediate successor, is a highly skilled revolutionary, but he lacks bin Laden’s charisma and many jihadists see Zawahiri as too focused on parochial disputes within the Islamist community. Zawahiri may surprise doubters and emerge as a capable successor or another, new leader may arise, but bin Laden’s shoes will be hard to fill. Recruitment and fundraising may suffer as a result as wealthy donors give their money to other causes while impressionable youth take up more local fights or, better yet, stay home.
The lack of a charismatic leader may create fissures in a movement always prone to them. Like-minded affiliate groups in Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere may become even more independent, reducing al Qaeda’s global reach.
Aside from his leadership qualities, bin Laden’s very survival had been a success for al Qaeda. For almost a decade bin Laden has been public enemy number one: by orchestrating terrorist attacks and issuing statements in the years after 9/11 he publicly demonstrated that the United States, for all its wealth and technology, was not able to kill one man who, in the eyes of his sympathizers, enjoyed divine protection. He became a symbol in the Arab and Muslim world, and indeed in revolutionary circles globally, of anti-U.S. opposition. His death both ends this defiance and sends another message: that the United States will be relentless in hunting its enemies. The nature of bin Laden’s death — at the hands of U.S. forces in a bold raid — adds further luster to the U.S. image.
Bin Laden’s death is particularly timely because of the democratic wave now sweeping Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. These revolutions sent the message that Arabs can seize their own destiny and bring about change peacefully, a message very much at odds with the violent extremism at the heart of al Qaeda’s mission. And now the organization must enshrine a new leader who will have to sell himself at a time when many potential sympathizers now have other models for success. For Arab youth, the uprisings of recent months may make peaceful activism a more compelling alternative to al Qaeda’s endless jihad.
U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts must continue, and in the short term perhaps even increase. The risk of revenge attacks should lead to a focus on bolstering defenses. Even more important, aggressive strikes on al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and the global intelligence and policy campaign must not end. Al Qaeda will be in disarray, and arresting or killing remaining leaders, hindering their communications, and foiling their plots can put them on the run.