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Bin Laden Is Dead, But His War Continues

Supporters of the hard-line pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest in Quetta, Pakistan on May 2.
WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden is dead. The man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents, and who struck fear into the hearts of millions of others, is no more.

Yet the wars that he inspired, and the ideas that fuel them, still live on.

In his twisted way, bin Laden provided inspiration, a strong guiding hand, and an instantly recognizable brand identity to the Al-Qaeda organization that he founded. So there should be at least some grounds for hope that his death could rob international jihadi terrorism of its momentum.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to hope that this will turn out to be the case.

Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, once belonged to a radical Islamist organization in his youth. So he has particular understanding of the lure of Al-Qaeda's nefarious ideology.

Husain readily concedes that bin Laden's death is a psychological blow to the terrorists. But it doesn't affect the most important thing that Al-Qaeda has to offer: its message of radical resistance to the infidel West and its utopian striving for a revival of the caliphate. In Husain's eyes, therefore, whether the group's presumed number two, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, ascends to the leadership of Al-Qaeda is immaterial.

"But even if Ayman al-Zawahri were to be killed -- and let's hope that's some time soon -- it doesn't really make Al-Qaeda dysfunctional because Al-Qaeda is about ideas. It's a vision, it's a confrontational movement. Therefore individuals at the helm make very little difference," Husain said.

Resurgent Militias

While many people around the world rejoice at the death of bin Laden, it might be worth recalling the fate of an earlier but much less well-known terrorist leader by the name of Juma Namangani. Back in 2001, Namangani was the charismatic military leader of the Central Asian terrorist group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In November of that year he was killed by U.S. forces during the early stages of the war against the Taliban. His movement, essentially decapitated, fragmented. Its members scattered, and it appeared on the verge of collapse.

Now, 10 years later, the IMU and its affiliates are active across a broad swath of territory ranging from the tribal areas of Pakistan to northern Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics where it originated -- and where it was long thought to have been eradicated.

There is, in short, nothing to prevent Al-Qaeda from organizing new attacks if its members conclude that the power of their leader's beliefs outlives his "martyrdom."

Brian Sheridan, who led a Pentagon department aimed at organized crime and terrorist groups during the Clinton administration, says that fighting an amorphous phenomenon like Al-Qaeda resembles the struggle against the U.S. mafia. "These things don't just go away," he says. "You don't say, 'I solved it.' What you're doing is trying to contain them so they do less harm. But you're never going to eliminate them."

One area where bin Laden's death will hit Al-Qaeda the hardest, he says, often doesn't figure in the more lurid accounts of the war on terror. "Your big issue is, 'What does it do to recruiting?' I have to think that his exit from this world does not help them with that."

Perhaps. And there is certainly some consolation to be derived from the fact that the recent uprisings in the Arab world have drawn so little apparent inspiration from the forces of Islamist extremism. Counterterrorism expert Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security notes that the "Arab spring" certainly offers grounds for hope.

"So I think that it's worth noting that Al-Qaeda as an organization has failed in the Arabic-speaking world. They have not succeeded in supplanting the regimes in Egypt or in Jordan or in Saudi Arabia with austere radical fundamentalists, fundamentalist regimes," Exum says.

"So in that way I think that the Arabic-speaking world really highlights the failures and limitations of Al-Qaeda."

Still, Exum -- an Arabic speaker who led a unit of Army Rangers into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan -- hastens to add that he's been saying for years that the death of bin Laden would likely have little immediate effect on Al-Qaeda's operations. U.S. national security experts, he says, will almost certainly find that the threat from jihadi terrorist groups remains alive in many parts of the world -- bin Laden or no bin Laden.
Bin Laden's death may offer the satisfaction of vengeance extracted. But the legacy of war that he inspired so far gives little indication that his demise will bring it to a halt

Husain, for his part, notes that the news of bin Laden's death has prompted virtually no celebration in the Arab world -- despite the countless Muslim deaths the Al-Qaeda leader has caused over the years. Those who rejoiced at the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have shown little inclination to take to the streets when it comes to the elimination of bin Laden.

"I would have liked to have seen [Cairo's] Tahrir Square come out and say, 'Thank God this terrorist is out of the way,' even if it's just symbolic. But so far we haven't seen anything like that," Husain says.

Meanwhile, he says, the leader of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has issued a statement referring to bin Laden as a "martyr," while Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, now preparing for the first postrevolutionary round of free elections, deferentially referred to the dead Al-Qaeda as a "sheikh," or religious leader (which he was not).

All this, Husain worries, suggests that Al-Qaeda's ability to influence the terms of debate in the Muslim world remains considerable -- even after bin Laden's death. That capacity is merely underlined, he says, by the care taken by the Americans to dispose of bin Laden's body in a way that would prevent it from becoming a pilgrimage site. In short, Husain says, "You have to worry about this guy becoming a hero and not the mass murderer that he is."

And then there are the circumstances under which bin Laden was finally located. "I still think Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth for a lot of different reasons, some of them illustrated last night," Exum says. "The fact that OBL [bin Laden] had been living in relative comfort in a wealthy resort town outside of Islamabad tells you everything you need to know about either Pakistani denialism when it comes to extremists or Pakistani complicity in sheltering Al-Qaeda and other transnational groups."

Questioned Loyalty

Already there have been loud demonstrations against bin Laden's death on the streets of Pakistan, suggesting that the immediate result of the operation may be an upsurge in already virulent anti-American sentiment in the country. Many Pakistanis are likely to see the U.S. raid as yet another example of U.S. contempt for their sovereignty -- a sentiment that could become even more toxic if it turns out that elements within the government in Islamabad actually assisted the Americans in some way.

Some experts point out that Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was killed, lies within an air-defense district centered on the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, making it almost impossible for U.S. helicopters to have operated in the area without some sort of Pakistani complicity.

So even while U.S. suspicions about Pakistani loyalties are intensified by the circumstances of bin Laden's demise, ordinary Pakistanis may find themselves agitating against the government in Islamabad for opposite reasons. Either way, the resulting chaos is unlikely to facilitate effective actions against the terrorists.

John McCreary, a former longtime analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now writes the private news bulletin "NightWatch," says that the United States should expect a serious backlash from angry Pakistanis in the wake of bin Laden's death.

But he is even more skeptical when it comes to the continuing war in neighboring Afghanistan.

What bin Laden's death is likely to show there, he says, is just how little the Taliban insurgency actually has to do with Al-Qaeda. Based on his analysis of the intensity and geographic distribution of Taliban attacks, McCreary says that the coming fighting season looks set to be one of the most ferocious ever.

March was one of the most vicious fighting months in the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979. While bin Laden's death may be a "demoralizing factor" for some Taliban members, he doubts that it will have much effect. The Taliban says that it will keep fighting as long as the U.S.-led foreign forces remain in Afghanistan -- and for the time being that foreign presence remains.

"Mullah Omar has kept his distance from the Al-Qaeda connection, so that the fighters loyal to the [Taliban leadership] -- they'll continue on," McCreary says.

In short, bin Laden's death may offer the satisfaction of vengeance extracted. But the legacy of war that he inspired so far gives little indication that his demise will bring it to a halt.