In light of these historic events, the Combating Terrorism Center reached out to former national security officials and key counterterrorism experts to place Usama bin Ladin’s death in context. The following represents their views on the implications of Bin Ladin’s death in Pakistan.
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Juan C. Zarate is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the senior national security analyst for CBS News, and the former U.S. deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism (2005-2009)
It was impossible to imagine the end of al-Qa`ida without the death of Usama bin Ladin. Now, with his killing at the hands of Navy SEALs, we have reached a strategic moment in the Long War. We must now unleash a full-throttle counterterrorism campaign to ensure al-Qa`ida’s demise.
Bin Ladin’s death comes at a time of great stress for al-Qa`ida. Its core leadership bench is thin; its financing depleted; and its moral, theological, and strategic legitimacy under question in most Muslim communities. In the Arab world, al-Qa`ida’s ideology has been sidelined by the secular, democratic, and non-violent spirit of the Arab Spring.
Despite the realities of an al-Qa`ida Hydra—the rise of affiliates like AQAP in Yemen, the witches’ brew of terrorist groups in western Pakistan, and the flow of Westerners drawn to al-Qa`ida’s Siren’s Song—al-Qa`ida is on the ropes.
Now is the time to redouble efforts to destroy core al-Qa`ida once and for all. This means decimating its remaining leadership, denying it safe haven, and undercutting its alluring narrative and ideological underpinnings. This includes moving surely with allies against key al-Qa`ida members and affiliates globally, pressuring Pakistan to help unearth other al-Qa`ida and Taliban leaders who have burrowed in their country, and refocusing attention on Iran’s role in housing and now releasing key al-Qa`ida leaders like Sayf al-Adl.
This campaign should be matched by a counterterrorist financing campaign and a narrative assault on Bin Ladin’s image and al-Qa`ida’s narrative based on documents, videos, and information recovered from the Abbottabad compound.
But this classic counterterrorism campaign must be matched by an equally vigorous effort to ensure the survival of the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring. The forces of authoritarianism in Tripoli and Damascus are fighting back, and the revolutionary experiments in Cairo and Tunis have yet to be resolved. This requires American, allied, and non-state support to ensure Arab civil societies and democracy flourish. If not, the violent forces of extremism and authoritarianism will take advantage of the disillusionment, discord, and chaos that may result when the protesters’ dreams are not realized.
The concept of the Long War against violent Islamic extremism has become embedded in our national security strategies and consciousness. Terrorism will not end now that Bin Ladin is gone, nor will the demographic, resource, and economic pressures that will help fuel growing radicalization in Muslim communities.
But the killing of Usama bin Ladin provides a strategic window to imagine an end to this chapter of the Long War. We must act now to defeat this movement and prepare for what lies beyond al-Qa`ida.
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Brigadier-General (ret.) Mark Kimmitt is the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs
The death of Usama bin Ladin was, without doubt, an important moment. As a consequence, key policy decisions will emerge and one can only hope that the United States will not make unwise decisions leaving the situation worse, rather than better. One should expect that the entire AFPAK and counterterrorism portfolio will be assessed, and a few points should be considered.
1. The Long War is not over. The death of Bin Ladin does not end the Long War against radical extremism. Bin Ladin was, and may remain, the iconic symbol of this war, but his death may have little effect on its affiliated movements. Some hope that Bin Ladin’s death will cause internal infighting and implosion, but al-Qa`ida in Iraq was defeated by continued and unrelenting pressure after the death of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, not through internal dynamics. Any diminution of effort against al-Qa`ida in the wake of Bin Ladin’s death would be a mistake. This is a generational fight.
2. We cannot walk away from Pakistan. There will be pressure to end operations against al-Qa`ida in Pakistan, and disagreement on aid levels. Unfortunately, the United States is an instrumental actor in the stability of Pakistan and this is no time to walk away. Ending or reducing operations, funding or aid is counterproductive and irresponsible. There remain significant extremist elements which seek the overthrow of the government, and the death of Bin Ladin does not change a simple fact—Pakistan has over 100 nuclear weapons, and these cannot fall into the wrong hands.
3. We must not accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Bin Ladin’s death will create pressure to follow George Aiken’s advice on Vietnam: “Declare victory and go home.” To many, casus belli no longer exists and withdrawal is not only an option, but a responsibility. We have overstayed our welcome, and a rapid withdrawal will be seen as the most appropriate policy to reduce the perception of U.S. occupation and war against Islam. In this case, the administration must take a longer view and not repeat the policy mistakes made in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.
None of these issues should take away from our admiration for those professionals that toiled for years to develop the intelligence picture, for the policy professionals that made the tough recommendation to execute an operation fraught with fog and friction, and for those extraordinary special operators who carried out the mission. We, indeed, “sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
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Elliott Abrams, who served as a Deputy National Security Adviser in the George W. Bush Administration, is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
The spectacular news of Usama bin Ladin’s killing by U.S. forces could not have come at a better time. Al-Qa`ida’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-Qa`ida 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 Ladin’s death weakens al-Qa`ida and Salafist movements further by taking away their most powerful symbol.
Al-Qa`ida may redouble efforts to commit acts of terror, but its prestige and power in the Arab world are on the decline. The Administration should turn back now to the cases of Libya and Syria above all, pushing further to end the vicious and violent regimes that rule those countries. As the republics of fear fall, al-Qa`ida’s message will fall further into disrepute and the message of freedom that is now spreading in the Middle East will grow stronger.
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Michael F. Walker was former chief of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia Division and is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University
The termination of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Usama bin Ladin, seriously damaged the al-Qa`ida leadership structure, degraded its operational capabilities and affected the morale of the organization. The lethal raid in Abbottabad was the most significant of many successful, but not publicized, counterterrorist operations against the al-Qa`ida leadership in recent years and it again demonstrated that U.S. intelligence and military services continue to conduct successful unilateral operations against al-Qa`ida worldwide. In the weeks and months to come, analysts will be busy with sensitive site exploitation which will lead to identifying, locating and neutralizing more al-Qa`ida operatives.
In spite of Bin Ladin’s death, however, decentralized al-Qa`ida affiliates in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb, Europe and in the United States will continue to espouse al-Qa`ida’s Salafist-Wahhabist ideology and may move forward with plans to attack U.S. citizens and facilities. But I am optimistic that we will continue to disrupt or thwart these terrorist plots and will capture or kill those involved.
On a final note, the killing of Bin Ladin is the result of a special 10-year close partnership between CIA and the U.S. military. Over the course of many years, it has been my honor and privilege to have been part of this special relationship.
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Ambassador Frank Taylor was the U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security (July 2001 to March 2005)
The U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of Usama bin Ladin culminates a decade of effort by the U.S. counterterrorism community to bring justice to the person most responsible for the horrific events of September 11, 2001. It is a testament to the commitment that our country made to pursue those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will pursue all the others until they too are brought to justice. No terrorist can ever believe that their acts of violence will go unpunished. This was a great day for the United States of America and the world that another brutal criminal will not have the opportunity to harm innocent people again. I am sure that others will try to use this event to “revenge” his death, but their revenge will be diminished by the fact that Bin Ladin’s brand of Islamic extremism is dying and a new wave of change is on the verge of blossoming in the Middle East. Popular discontent and non-violent protest have done more to transform the Islamic world than all the crimes perpetrated by al-Qa`ida over the past 15 years.
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Professor Rohan Gunaratna, Head, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore, is the lead author of Pakistan: Ground Zero Terrorism (Reaktion, London, 2011)
No terrorist leader has influenced the contemporary wave of terrorism more than Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin built not only al-Qa`ida, “the vanguard of the Islamic movements,” but a global movement. Like a politician, he forged enduring links with different leaders and disparate groups. Unlike his predecessors, he crafted an ideology that has global appeal. Muslims suffering from perceived and real injustices formed his support base. Bin Ladin’s biggest strength was his ability to communicate complex ideas into simple words. A master communicator, he was able to politicize, radicalize and mobilize a segment of the Muslim community globally to hate America, its European allies and friends. As his soft spoken words met with his destructive actions, he captured the imagination of resentful Muslims worldwide.
Within al-Qa`ida, Bin Ladin groomed a highly capable leadership that has been running its day-to-day affairs. Although U.S.-led global counterterrorism efforts steadfastly eroded al-Qa`ida’s capabilities, Bin Ladin was able to maintain the spirit of his followers and motivation of his fighters. Of the leaders of the six committees of al-Qa`ida, only Bin Ladin, who led the Political Committee, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who led the Information Committee, survived. While the heads of the military committee Abu Hafs al-Masri and administration and finance committee Shaykh Saeed were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively, the heads of the religious committee Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, and security and intelligence committee Sayf al-Adl were captured in Iran. Bin Ladin’s deputy and his personal physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was his designated successor. While al-Qa`ida’s numerical strength is estimated at a few hundred fighters mostly located in North Waziristan Agency in Pakistan, an estimated several million Muslims worldwide still support Bin Ladin.
Reducing the future global threat of terrorism will depend on the U.S. ability and willingness to work effectively in the Muslim world. Although Pakistan was the steadfast sponsor of the Taliban, after 9/11 the government of Pakistan provided unprecedented support to the United States. More than 600 al-Qa`ida leaders and members were killed or captured in Pakistan. After the U.S.-led coalition intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001, Pakistan inherited a huge terrorist infrastructure that previously flourished in Afghanistan. Both the location of the residences of Bin Ladin (Abbottabad, north of Islamabad) and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (West Ridge, Rawalpindi) demonstrates that the threat has spread from tribal Pakistan to mainland Pakistan. Rather than criticize Pakistan, it is paramount for the United States to continue to work with their Pakistani intelligence, law enforcement and military counterparts. In addition to working with Pakistan to dismantle both the physical and the conceptual infrastructures of terrorism and extremism in Pakistan, the United States should help Islamabad develop the economy of Pakistan, especially in the tribal areas.
Until al-Qa`ida attacked America’s most iconic landmarks on 9/11, Bin Ladin sustained and survived due to international neglect. He should have been killed or captured immediately after al-Qa`ida attacked the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 or the USS Cole in 2000. The killing of Bin Ladin is an emotional victory for the United States, its allies and its friends. Had the United States killed Bin Ladin in Afghanistan before or immediately after 9/11, the United States would have deterred an escalation in global threat. Had the United States not been distracted and intervened in Iraq, Bin Ladin would have been killed or captured much earlier. Both al-Qa`ida and the wider, global movement Bin Ladin built is likely to pose an enduring threat in the foreseeable future.
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Ambassador (ret.) Dell L. Dailey was the U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2007-2009)
The American people went to bed on May 1, 2011 realizing something big had happened in the global war on terrorism, or whatever it was now being called. President Barack Obama’s announcement came forth with certainty and assurances proclaiming Usama bin Ladin was killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in Pakistan. We now have an intelligence success. Later, we find out we have a great counterterrorism success. Should we bask in that success or capitalize on it?
Once the low level facts get accepted, such as, he is dead, SEALs did it, President Obama was involved in the decision process, relations with Pakistan will suffer and photos will not be released…What is next for the Coalition in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. government around the world to do? More importantly do we have a political opportunity to move forward the proposition that the United States is justified in its efforts against al-Qa`ida, associated movements and those countries that support al-Qa`ida?
Follow-on actions by the U.S. government could be: accelerate the departure of troops from Afghanistan, further minimize cooperation with Pakistan, tie the Arab Spring to greater U.S. support, or message to the world the correctness of U.S. actions.
Every kinetic action or “targeted killing” should come with a powerful message regarding justification. More importantly, the message should be more relevant than the kinetic action itself. There is an opportunity to relate this “targeted killing,” the death of Bin Ladin, to the horrendous murders, killings, butcheries, and maiming of thousands of innocent Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are talking about old men, women, and children dead on the streets of the world. From Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 to New York City in 2001 to bombings and attacks in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Spain and Somalia—the world needs to know al-Qa`ida did it and Bin Ladin was its leader.
The U.S. government has been particularly slow in persuading or influencing the world on the righteousness of its global efforts. Always one more bureau, agency, or department to get to agree, and for some obscure reason they “non-concur” and the initiative stalls. Nothing goes out over the airways, blogs, radio stations, print media, or conferences. Silence from the U.S. government. Deafening silence. Another opportunity embarrassingly missed.
How to do it? Direct the National Security Council (NSC) to lead it. Assign selected authorities to the NSC office that compels them to direct the “messaging” agencies of the U.S. government. Routinely meet with key messaging elements like DoD Public Relations, State Public Diplomacy, CIA office for messaging, Broadcasting Board of Governors and the numerous bureaus, agencies and departments that inform the public—both domestic and international. What we say must certainly be truthful, but said enough times and in different ways that it persuades and influences the foreign audiences who continually detest and despise the United States.
Let’s use the death of Bin Ladin as our first powerful message to the world. He was hunted down and killed by U.S. forces to stop his murderous actions against innocent people, Muslim and Christian.
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Honorable Thomas W. O’Connell served 27 years as an Army Infantry and Intelligence Officer, many with Special Operations units. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict from 2003-2007
Meetings among the National Security Council (NSC) deputies and Working Groups during the period 2003-2007 tended to assume a low key battle rhythm focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan as well as domestic threats and threads of allied concerns. Yet, the mastermind of 9/11 was always in the thoughts of the deliberative bodies. Each meeting held the promise that some link to Bin Ladin would surface. It was not to be.
But through it all, I sensed superb confidence that the United States would prevail against him. Never heard any doubters. Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Military, Diplomats and NSC officials were of one mind. Some day the noose would close.
Was it frustrating? Absolutely. I could not count the number of times an associate, friend, or media member asked a form of the question: “Where, When, Why Not?” I am pretty sure I never gave a response that offered anything less than confident optimism. I had good reason.
Sincere congratulations to all who pulled this off. Thanks to many who worked tirelessly and never lost sight of a critical objective.