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Bin Laden’s Death Is a Historic Triumph, But What Does it Really Mean for al-Qaida? Bin Laden’s Death Is a Historic Triumph, But What Does it Really Mea...

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National Security / National Security

Bin Laden’s Death Is a Historic Triumph, But What Does it Really Mean for al-Qaida?

photo of Michael Hirsh
May 2, 2011

Why now? It had been nearly a decade since 9/11. Almost until the moment the historic news of Osama bin Laden’s death was announced by President Obama on Sunday night, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials had been saying publicly that the trail of the al-Qaida leader was cold and had been so for years. Some experts suggested that it was possible that he would never be found, that bin Laden could end up like Mirza Ali Khan, the notorious “Fakir of Ipi” who was relentlessly hunted by the British in the 1930s and '40s but simply disappeared into the folds of what are now the Pakistani tribal regions.

Moreover, U.S.-Pakistani relations had been even rockier than usual lately. Pakistani authorities complained bitterly about the extent of U.S. operations inside their country after a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, killed two Pakistanis who had allegedly attempted to rob him in Lahore in late January.

But the president, in his statement to the nation, said that as far back as August 2010, he had been briefed on “a possible lead” about bin Laden’s whereabouts. It wasn’t until last week, Obama said, that “we had enough intelligence to take action.” On Sunday he authorized a covert U.S. operation at a compound where bin Laden was holed up in the northwest town of Abbottabad, less than 50 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Obama credited the “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan [that] helped lead us to bin Laden.”

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As welcome as the news was, it raised more questions than it answered. The location of bin Laden’s last hideaway, for one thing, is significant. It turned out he had long ago left the “caves” he was putatively hiding in; instead, he was living in a relatively affluent city that is close not only to Pakistan's political power center but to the living quarters of its top military officer corps. The news was a significant embarrassment to Pakistani authorities, who had maintained for years that they had no idea where bin Laden was.

So one question is, does this mark a new level of cooperation with Pakistan that will help solve one of the most difficult challenges in completing the task of eradicating al-Qaida and its affiliates? U.S. military experts feared that the safe haven enjoyed by Islamist radicals affiliated with al-Qaida in Pakistan, next door to the nearly 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, was a nearly insuperable problem. One of them, retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert, told National Journal recently that the Pakistan problem was far worse than the challenge U.S. forces had faced in dealing with the insurgency in Iraq, which had benefited from open borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia.



A U.S. official with knowledge of the operation told National Journal on Monday that Pakistani help was very limited, that "this was a CIA operation" from the start. The official also said that the operation was years in the making, beginning with information gleaned from detainees who "flagged to us people who had been helping bin Laden. One was a courier whose name kept coming up. But he had a nom de guerre. Then, four years ago, we uncovered his name. Two years ago we finally identified the areas where he and his brother were operating. Then, in August 2010, we found this residence. But it was eight times larger than others in the area, and this courier and his brother had no identifiable means of income." Most of the details were kept secret from the Pakistanis. "No one had advance knowledge of the operation," said the official, who would give details of the case only on condition of anonymity. "It was a huge intelligence puzzle, with pieces put together along the way. There were just bits and pieces of information, that’s how I would view Pakistani help."

If  U.S. forces were in fact acting in cooperation with Pakistani officials, there is ample reason to be suspicious of how helpful they will be in the future. Given the recent rift in U.S-Pakistani relations, this event could well follow an old pattern in which the Pakistanis abruptly provide useful intelligence in order to blunt antagonism from Washington that could jeopardize billions of dollars in aid, and then fall silent again. "How many times have we killed al-Qaida's No. 3" in Pakistan?  John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., told National Journal early Monday. "Twenty times?"

The much larger question, of course, is what happens now to al-Qaida? Is the "long war" against terrorism really over? Undoubtedly, the death of a leader who had attained nearly mythological stature over the past two decades is a great symbolic victory for the United States and its allies. But many intelligence experts believe it has been some time since bin Laden had been directly in control of al-Qaida operations. Reliable reports in 2007 indicated that there was even a split between bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and that the latter was running operations.

In subsequent years, al-Qaida has become a far less centralized movement. It has relied on freelance radicals who had become deft at using the Internet, among them Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who is believed to be hiding in Yemen. Only a year ago, on May 1, 2010, a Pakistani expatriate named Faisal Shahzad, allegedly acting largely on his own, had sought to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, a plot that was only narrowly averted. Meanwhile, anti-U.S. sentiment continues to rage out of control in Pakistan and many Arab countries, fed by Obama’s aggressive prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as his decision to break a promise to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

“I was disturbed to hear people say al-Qaida was finished. That’s a lot of bunk. The movement goes on,” says Arquilla. “al-Qaida has lost a leader and gained a martyr. How does that cut in terms of recruitment and in terms of the narrative?”

Still, coming at the same time as democratic upheaval in the Arab world has offered another means of self-expression for young Muslims who had once found an outlet only in Islamism, the loss of bin Laden could begin to drain the movement of its energy.

Beyond that, until Sunday, bin Laden was thought to have been the best-protected terrorist in the world, and the message to other terrorists is clear: If the United States can get him, it can get you. Indeed, the dimensions of this intelligence and military success are extraordinary. The last time that bin Laden’s whereabouts were said to be definitively known was late 2001, scarcely two months after 9/11. Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the Afghan operation, said that bin Laden was trapped in al-Qaida's Tora Bora hideaway after the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in late 2001. As Berntsen recorded in his 2005 book Jawbreaker, bin Laden told his followers, "Forgive me," and apologized for getting them pinned down by the Americans.

But the Pentagon refused to put in the necessary troops, Bernsten said, and bin Laden disappeared. For years afterwards there was almost no sign of him beyond occasional rumors. It was said Islamist radicals had boasted that bin Laden was so well protected by the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan that even those closest to him didn’t know where he spent the night. He had long ago given up using electronic communications, relying on anonymous couriers through a series of buffers, and his meetings with trusted aides were said to be held outside his base. Now that myth of invulnerability is destroyed.

Above all, bin Laden’s death is a repudiation, to some degree, of the radical narrative he had sought to sell to his sympathizers around the world: that by launching a long, draining war on many fronts, he would weaken America just as the mujahedeen in Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union. For many years, as the United States launched one war after another and suffered a financial and economic crisis, that nightmarish vision appeared to be coming true. But now we know that bin Laden won’t live to see it succeed.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes's title.

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