After weeks of inactivity, it is time for me to start posting again. What a better opportunity than the death of the most-wanted terrorist on the planet?
I guess first it is important to state the obvious: Usama Bin Laden’s death does not in any way mean the end of the “War on terror.” I believe most people in the United States and abroad are aware of this, but since some seem to believe otherwise, I think it is important to start from there. So what does it mean for the logistics of the Al Qaeda network? The death of its charismatic leader will certainly disorganize the hierarchic structure. Power struggles will certainly follow. The legitimacy of its new leader might be questioned by its members and minor groups might split off. However, I don’t think that Bin Laden’s death is likely to affect Al Qaeda capabilities on the longer term. First, as one of my students rightly pointed out yesterday, he and his organization were certainly prepared for this. After all, he was the most important figure on the FBI most-wanted terrorist list. He must have been expecting this. He is said to have written his testament as early as December 2001 while he was hiding inside the Tora Bora caves. Second, his role in day to day activities had already been decreasing over the past few years. He had been delegating more and more, especially to his deputy: Ayman Al Zawahiri. And third, the Al Qaeda network is a rhizomic organization, a collection of groups loosely-affiliated to the mother structure that was led by Bin Laden. His death should not affect those groups’ operational capabilities tremendously.
That being said, should the world expect a revenge strike in the coming weeks as some have predicted? I don’t think so. Al Qaeda will still be disorganized for a while and busy figuring out what to do now that its charismatic leader is gone. Also, large scale terrorist attacks are highly organized operations that cannot be conducted in such a short amount of time – unless such an operation had already been planned by one of those groups, but it would probably not have anything to do with Usama Bin Laden’s death.
If we believe that UBL’s death will not really affect Al Qaeda’s logistics in the longer term, what about the psychological effect then? It is widely believed that it will boost US forces’ pride, ego and determination, while demoralizing Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is very likely indeed. It might put an end to the idea that a small non-state armed group can indefinitely defy the world’s most powerful military. It will strengthen the idea that no one can harm the United States without paying the price. It is true. However, one has to keep in mind that one of the 09/11 attacks’ objectives was to engage the United States in a long and exhausting “global Jihad” thousands of miles away from its shores. In that sense, not only did Bin Laden and his followers expect casualties, they also wished for an American intervention. I find it hard to believe that Al Qaeda leaders ever thought they would get away with it. Engaging the US in a “War on Terror” was part of the strategy. It is therefore very likely that Bin Laden’s death will not only be used by Al Qaeda as a symbol of martyrdom, but also as a way of proving to the world that it is strong enough to survive without its symbolic leader, as well as a way of showing the Islamic world that it has achieved its first objective: engaging the United States in a global war all the way across the globe.
This leads me to evoke the means used by Western democracies, and especially the United States in the “War on Terror;” and, most importantly, the legal and philosophical discussion that will certainly ensue in Europe and the United States. I must say that I was a little surprised by the headlines the other night. The only thing we could read was “Usama Bin Laden is dead.” The truth is, Bin Laden is not just dead. He has been killed. One could say that it is just a way of phrasing it, that is does not make a difference, but it does. Whether or not the men who conducted the operation that led to UBL’s death had been shot at or not, it is well-known that targeted assassinations have long been part of the US administration’s “War on Terror.” “We want him dead or alive” said George W. Bush. It is time, now that UBL has been killed, to bring this debate outside academia and to finally discuss the legal implications of those practices. As importantly, the philosophical implications of revenge killings need to be discussed. Counterterrorism pundits will certainly tell you that killing terrorist leaders is efficient and will save lives. First, it still has to be proven, since loose networks tend to grow heads again, much more easily than more hierarchical structures would. Second, targeted killings undermine the appeal that democracies have over terrorist networks. The right to a fair trial is constitutive of our Western democracies, Bin Laden or no Bin Laden. It is essential in a country that respects that rule of law. As soon as I heard President Obama mention justice at the end of his speech the other night, I couldn’t help but remember the inspiring answer he gave about two years to a journalist asking him about waterboarding:
“Churchill understood: you start taking shortcuts, and overtime that corrodes what’s best in the people. It corrodes the character of a country (…). Part of what makes us (…) still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals, even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy. At the same time it takes away a critical recruitment tool that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killings of civilians.”
I believe Obama was right that day. The shortcut he and previous administrations have taken with targeted killings will certainly prove rewarding in the opinion polls, but it is likely to undermine the US image over the world. This, and the obscene scenes of celebrations that we have witnessed on Sunday night, will certainly be used as a “recruitment tool” by terrorist networks, which have at least managed one thing: bring the US down to their level. Overtime, it will have consequences.
Last but not least (since this is a blog on Afghanistan), what will be the consequences of UBL’s death on the ground in Afghanistan? In my understanding, there will be no major consequences on the Taliban ability to fight. They will still get Al Qaeda’s support. Thus, I unfortunately don’t think it will really impact the negotiations with the Taliban. One should keep in mind that while the Taliban and Al Qaeda have strong links, they are two different groups/networks, with very different modes of operations and objectives. There is no reason to believe that UBL’s death will weaken the Taliban logistical capabilities, or their willingness to defeat the United States. In my mind, the only way it could really affect the Taliban is through changes in the Obama administration. Bin Laden’s highly publicized and politicized death is likely to legitimize counterterrorism over counterinsurgency, and comfort the US administration decision to leave Afghanistan in 2014. In that sense, it can affect Afghanistan internal dynamics.
Obviously those are just a few quick thoughts but I hope they will allow us to engage in a fruitful debate over the consequences of Usama Bin Laden’s death. I know there are many other issues to talk about that I have not tackled (the US relations with Pakistan, the body issue, conspiracy theories surrounding UBL’s death, etc.). I am not really sure about Pakistan’s involvement in the operation yet, and as far as the Bin Laden’s body is concerned, I’m sure we will hear more about it in the next days and weeks. I would rather wait, so that we can have a more informed discussion.