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Magazine / COVER STORY: THE WAR THAT WAS

After bin Laden: Is the War on Terror Winding Down?

There could be more terrorist attacks, but the “war on terror” as an organizing principle of American foreign and national-security policy is ending.

Cathartic: In New York City, jubilation marked the news of bin Laden’s demise.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

photo of James Kitfield
May 5, 2011

For a generation of Americans seared by the horrific spectacle of 9/11, he was a shadowy figure of malice, a disembodied voice whispering messages of doom that even a decade of war failed to silence. In more than 30 audio and video tapes released since the deadliest terrorist attack in history, Osama bin Laden taunted U.S. leaders for their inability to bring him to justice even as he seduced followers with his vision of a holy war between Islam and the West that would drive the infidels from Muslim lands.

Above all, bin Laden exhorted his “heroic warriors” to kill Westerners and Jews as the path to redemption. Often, the complex organism of global jihad responded to his entreaties with acts of wanton violence. For as long as he was free, the very idea of bin Laden remained potent and menacing. But then the hard men with guns came in the night, and he was just another terrorist at the end of his bloody run of luck.

With bin Laden silenced, the overarching question for Washington is, what becomes of the movement he claimed to head? After a leadership struggle, a much-degraded al-Qaida will likely try to remain relevant in the extremist pantheon by plotting reprisal attacks, and the scattered franchises that the organization spawned may well do the same. But the truly existential danger was always the power of bin Laden’s ideas in enticing legions of followers to his twisted narrative of holy war.

 


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Certainly, the manner of bin Laden’s death suggests that both sides in this twilight struggle understood their roles in what are essentially competing narratives. Bin Laden had sworn never to be taken alive in his bid for “martyrdom,” and Navy SEAL Team Six obliged, carrying its own message that the United States never forgets. Then bin Laden was given a respectful Muslim burial at sea, ensuring that his final resting place would not become a point of pilgrimage for true believers.

It’s possible, of course, that bin Laden’s martyrdom narrative could reinvigorate interest in his ideas of a holy war with the West, inspiring new waves of recruits to join the “global jihad.” As terrorism expert Peter Bergen points out in The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaida, something similar happened to Sayyid Qutb, a writer and founding father of the jihadist movement whose ideas caught fire after the Egyptian government executed him in 1966.

Initial reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death, however, suggests that his once red-hot torch was already nearly extinguished. In his ancestral home in the Middle East, for instance, the response has generally been a collective shrug. Contrast that with the millions of fellow Arabs who took to the streets in recent months to shake off the yoke of despotism and demand democratic freedoms from autocrats throughout the Middle East, or the reverence bestowed on the lowly Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation lit the fuse of those peoples’ revolutions. Polls in recent years have consistently driven home the fact that Muslim support for al-Qaida’s terrorist tactics and bin Laden’s vision of a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate was declining dramatically before his demise.

“Osama bin Laden’s original genius was to create a narrative of war between the West and Islam that was easy to understand and that resonated with aggrieved Muslims all over the world,” Bergen said. “And then along comes the ‘Arab Spring,’ which refutes his narrative that only violence will topple the dictators, followed, with perfect timing, by bin Laden’s death. You couldn’t select two better bookends for the end of the ‘war on terror.’ ”

END OF AN ERA

In launching his “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush famously warned the public that “there will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.” Years from now, however, Americans may look back on bin Laden’s quiet burial at sea from the deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, along with the spontaneous celebrations by revelers who heard the news of his death and flocked unbidden to the White House and Ground Zero, as the closest thing to a “Victory over Terrorism” day in the war on terrorism.

Even if radical Islamist terrorism spikes in the short term as adherents seek revenge and remains a likely tactical threat for the foreseeable future, bin Laden’s fevered dreams of leading a violent Islamist revolution that sweeps fundamentalist theocracies into power almost certainly follows him to the depths. In that sense, the post-9/11 era defined by the “war on terror,” when combating terrorism was not only a national preoccupation but was also elevated to the central organizing principle of American foreign and national-security policy, is ending too.

Of course, even Bush had moved beyond such rhetoric by the end of his second term. Since taking office, the Obama administration has tried, with decidedly mixed success, to end many of the policies most closely associated with that era, and to refocus U.S. foreign policy through a far broader prism. Yet the difficulties and criticisms that President Obama has encountered in abolishing “enhanced interrogations,” trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and reaching out to the Muslim world all speak to the grip that 9/11 and terrorism continue to have on the U.S. body politic and national consciousness.

Indeed, in the joyous faces of young celebrants hugging and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” outside the White House on the night of bin Laden’s death, it was easy to read the emotional trauma carried by the generation that came of age in the 9/11 era. In that sense, bin Laden’s demise may prove helpfully cathartic for a nation that remains transfixed by the terrorist threat, despite the fact that al-Qaida has failed to launch a spectacular attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, although certainly not for lack of trying.

“I think the enormous reaction we saw to bin Laden’s death does say more about us as Americans than it does about the nature of the Qaida movement or threat, because this was just one man whose operational role in terrorism had diminished greatly over time and whose radical Islamist ideology had lost much of its energy,” said Paul Pillar, formerly a senior Middle East and counterterrorism analyst at the CIA and now a professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. “And I hope his death gives our political leaders a chance to declare a victory of sorts and help move the nation beyond this obsession with the so-called war on terror. For too long, the way Americans think about the challenges we confront around the world and at home has been distorted by the one-dimensional focus on security and terrorism that grew out of the 9/11 attacks.”

Fawaz Gerges is the author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. “In their reaction to bin Laden’s death, you could see that the Muslim and Arab worlds have already moved beyond the slogans and methods of al-Qaida,” he told National Journal. “The Arab Spring protests have dealt a crippling and almost certainly fatal blow to bin Laden’s ideology by revealing the huge imbalance and divide between the extremism of a small fringe group and the universal aspirations of millions of Arabs.

“The irony is that while the Muslim world has moved beyond al-Qaida and the 9/11 narrative, the reaction to bin Laden’s death in the United States strongly suggests that it still has a strong hold on the American imagination,” said Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “You can’t look at the scenes following the announcement of his death without understanding that bin Laden and al-Qaida not only damaged America physically but also psychologically. So, I hope President Obama and other political leaders in Washington use bin Laden’s death as a way to bring closure and reduce this gap between the actual threat of terrorism and its outsized hold on the American imagination, so that we can move on as a nation.”

White House officials also see an opportunity in the fact that bin Laden’s demise comes just as the Arab Spring is offering an alternative model for empowerment of the Arab and Muslim worlds. As the most visible symbol of al-Qaida, they say, bin Laden in death has shown the American public that he was just one man at the head of a discredited organization, and that there is a future beyond a perpetual, open-ended war on terrorism.

“That’s why it was only after bin Laden was killed that it sunk in how essential it was for this to happen for us to accomplish our broader goals,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, told National Journal. “His death doesn’t finish this chapter altogether, but after seeing him brought to justice, Americans can now envision the ultimate defeat of al-Qaida. And that needed to happen for America to move on to the next chapter.”

ATTACKING THE “FAR ENEMY”

If bin Laden’s death marks the logical conclusion of the war on terrorism as both an era and a unifying worldview in Washington, it’s important to remember the truly existential threat that the terrorism master represented at the height of his powers. From the outset, bin Laden masterfully wove a plausible narrative targeting Washington as the superpower behind the thrones of the kings and despots of Arabia. Only attacks on this “far enemy,” he argued, would force the United States to retreat and cause royal and military dictators of the Middle East to fall, restoring the Islamist caliphate to its former glory with dominion over all Muslim lands.

To realize his vision of a war between Islam and the West, bin Laden adopted a big-tent strategy that united disparate and often bickering extremist groups under the Qaida banner, in the process becoming adept at bridging differences between them. With his soft voice and professorial style, bin Laden also proved an effective propagandist, recruiting thousands to his global jihad and training an estimated 20,000 would-be terrorists in camps in Afghanistan.

As the Qaida organization grew and the ambition and destructiveness of its terrorist attacks escalated dramatically throughout the 1990s, so too did the legend of bin Laden. A scion of Saudi wealth, he had joined the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After helping to fell the Soviet goliath, bin Laden devoted himself to the deprivations of life as a warrior prince. He remained convinced that the United States would likewise retreat from the Middle East and ultimately crumble if bloodied enough. The September 11, 2001, attacks put his proposition to the test.

Steve Coll is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. “Osama bin Laden was a distinctly charismatic communicator, and his gentle style made him a more plausible leader than the argumentative style of [Qaida deputy Ayman] al-Zawahiri,” Coll said. “He also gained a lot of credibility by presiding over the largest terrorist attack in history and surviving to tell about it and to continue communicating his message for so long. And while his thinking and worldview were slightly muddled, bin Laden had a vision for what he was trying to accomplish and a matching narrative for how the news of the day fit into that story. His wasn’t a political theory you’ll be reading a decade from now, but it had a coherent narrative.”

Bin Laden achieved maximum popularity after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an operation that played into his depiction of the United States as a nation that coveted Muslim lands and oil. In 2004, a Pew Research Center poll reported that the Qaida leader had a 65 percent favorability rating in Pakistan, for instance. As late as 2008, a survey of opinion in the Muslim world found that in countries as disparate as Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, bin Laden inspired more “confidence” than President Bush—and by significant margins.

“After the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden came to be seen as the most viable symbol of anti-Americanism, because he was the one Muslim who had dared to stick a finger in the eye of the much-loathed superpower,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. Then, as Qaida-inspired terrorism spread across the Muslim world, with bombings of nightclubs in Indonesia, wedding parties in Jordan, embassies in Turkey, and mosques in Iraq, support for bin Laden specifically and terrorism generally started to decline dramatically, Kohut said. “By the time of his death, polls showed that the majority of Muslims no longer viewed him as the Islamic warrior standing up to the loathed superpower,” he said. “Bin Laden was already widely discredited.”

FATAL ERRORS

In retrospect, bin Laden made two fundamental, strategic miscalculations. The events of recent days and months exposed both, with fatal results not only for the archterrorist but also for his cause.

First, he badly misjudged his adversary. His experiences as a mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan convinced bin Laden that a relative handful of holy warriors could topple a superpower and that the United States was ripe for a fall. Studying the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Beirut in 1983 (after a suicide bombing killed 241 U.S. service members) and from Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1991 (after 19 U.S. soldiers died in a firefight), he concluded that the United States was a “paper tiger.”

Based on such anecdotal evidence, the cloistered bin Laden launched his war against the United States. He failed to understand that Beirut and Mogadishu represented a peacekeeping and a humanitarian mission, respectively, with limited national interests at stake. Nor did he anticipate the national rage that an attack on the homeland of the magnitude of 9/11 would provoke, or that the U.S. response would be to invade Afghanistan, topple his benefactors, the Taliban, and send al-Qaida scurrying across the mountains. He likewise misjudged the effectiveness of the armed drone strikes that across 10 years and two U.S. administrations continued to reach into supposed sanctuaries in Pakistan and methodically shrink bin Laden’s circle of friends and trusted lieutenants. SEAL Team Six delivered the final lesson about America’s long memory and will to fight.

“Bin Laden pushed this story that al-Qaida could strike the ‘paper tiger’ of America with impunity. And the fact that 10 years later we got him destroys that narrative and sends the very useful message to terrorists that you can run and hide, but you can’t wait the United States out,” said Michael Swetnam, chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a coeditor of Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network. “I think his death will help turn al-Qaida back into the fringe terrorist group it was in the 1980s, before it became a popular movement.”

Perhaps even more inexcusable than misjudging his enemy, bin Laden ultimately failed to understand his own people. He correctly read the underlying sense of humiliation and seething anger at the stilted existence in many autocratic Muslim societies, and he tried to tap into it with a vision of nihilistic violence and a return to a 7th-century Islamic fundamentalism. When the Arab Spring erupted, al-Qaida was all but struck mute by a spectacle suggesting that the masses really wanted freedom.

“The challenge the United States confronted in dealing with al-Qaida initially was that its narrative had greater appeal to potential Muslim recruits than the U.S. narrative,” said Martin Indyk, a Middle East expert and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Bin Laden’s narrative was that only violence and terror would topple Arab autocrats and redeem Muslim dignity and rights. That narrative has been dealt a serious blow by those responsible for the Arab Spring, because they have toppled regimes and redeemed Arab dignity but in a way that is exactly opposite of what bin Laden preached. That fact, coupled with the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces, has created a crisis of both leadership and narrative for al-Qaida.”

The marginalization of al-Qaida will not bring an end to the terrorist threat or free the United States from the need for constant vigilance. A major terrorist attack on U.S. soil or the successful hijacking of a people’s revolution that brings Islamist extremists to power in an Arab state could well shift the narrative again. But the revolutionary vanguard that Osama bin Laden envisioned leading, with its inexhaustible legions of recruits bent on endless jihad against the West—that fevered dream has been extinguished. The “war on terror” is over.

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