May 02, 2011
Bin Laden, No More
The killing of Osama bin Laden is an important achievement. He was the founder of the al Qaeda brand and the symbol of its continued potency in the face of America’s determined efforts to kill him. It does not, however, mark the end of the struggle against al Qaeda itself, let alone the larger struggle against Islamism. The al Qaeda cancer metastasized long ago throughout Pakistan, on the Arabian peninsula, and into Muslim Africa. Experts who study the organization have long described its decentralized nature and resilience. Previous successful attacks on al Qaeda leaders have demonstrated that resilience repeatedly. One such success should give us special pause. U.S. forces found and killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, then head of al Qaeda in Iraq, in June 2006. Many celebrated that moment as a potential turning point, and so it proved to be — but not in the way we had hoped. Abu Ayyub al Masri replaced Zarqawi almost instantly and launched an even more skillful, ruthless, and devastating campaign of car bombing in Baghdad, which stoked the flames of sectarian conflict far beyond anything Zarqawi had been able to achieve.
Interestingly, al Qaeda in Iraq is no longer capable of such attacks and has been increasingly marginalized as a threat to the Iraqi government and people and, even more so, to Americans. But we did not achieve that by catching al Masri. Instead, together with our Iraqi partners, we eliminated the conditions that had allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to flourish while continuing to attack the organization itself relentlessly.
The current moment of celebration is thus also a moment of great danger. Not only will all al Qaeda groups — and al Qaeda wannabes — seek revenge for bin Laden’s death, but the U.S. and its partners around the world can delude themselves that the war is over. They can believe that we can stop fighting now; that we can pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and, indeed, the entire region.
But the war will not be over, because the remaining al Qaeda leaders and their various franchisees around the world continue to seek our destruction and continue to have the means to do so. It would be pleasant indeed if we could end this conflict with one bullet, but, alas, that is not the case. This is a moment for sober celebration and even more sober reflection. Above all, it is a moment to rededicate ourselves to completing the process of defeating a horrific enemy.