I wasn’t going to write about the death of Osama bin Laden. After all, within hours of the president’s announcement, the American commentariat was bloviating at full volume. Is there anything more to add?
Perhaps there is.
I submit that the strategic significance of bin Laden’s death is seriously underestimated by many editorialists and those in the national security establishment.
Writing in Slate, for example, Chris Wilson notes that "the second-day stories are expressing a note of caution. ‘Bin Laden’s Death Doesn’t Mean the End of Al Qaeda,’ the warns. Reuters cautions that it ‘may have little practical impact on an increasingly decentralized group that has operated tactically without him for years.’"
The emerging analysis holds that bin Laden was isolated, out of communication and unable to conduct significant operations. His core group was eclipsed by "franchises" such as al-Qaida in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and other wannabes. Therefore, the demise of bin Laden is welcome news, they say, but someone will take his place and the Global War on Terror is far from over.
It is absolutely true that there is a worldwide jihadist movement, but Osama bin Laden was its inspiration and leader. No other jihadi enjoyed anything remotely approaching his stature or prominence. The fact that he succeeded in launching the most deadly attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor is what caused jihadis around the world to name their organizations after him, to pledge their loyalty to him personally, and to look to him for their ideological direction.
Now he is gone and his disciples are fractious. Just as Ali and Muawiyah fought over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad (a struggle that began in 657 A.D. and whose followers continue it to this day), there will be endless and inconclusive claims over the succession to bin Laden. There will be no recognized and central ideological authority. One group may claim to be the heir to the al-Qaida heritage, while another will claim that the first is a band of apostates. These squabbling franchises may exert regional influence, but will never unite, will never produce a coherent ideology, and will probably never achieve an international operational capability anywhere near the al-Qaida of 2001. There will still be jihadis and we have not seen the end of terrorism by non-state actors, but al-Qaida is dead. The dream of the caliphate is over.
Why is the national security community reluctant to declare victory? Unless we are going to abandon a national security consensus about the responsibility to exert American military leadership around the world, we need to have a threat that justifies the state of semi-war which has been the status quo since about 1945. Without an al-Qaida, it is hard to explain to the American people why we spend more than $700 billion annually on our military forces — as much or more than the rest of the world combined.
Without an al-Qaida, it is hard to justify a global war with some 300,000 troops stationed abroad in more than 39 nations. Without an al-Qaida, it is hard to articulate a strategic interest in Afghanistan. The national security establishment is not ready to give up a perfectly good bogeyman. It needs time to condition us to the introduction of a new one.
While there will remain jihadis who will call themselves "al-Qaida" and who proclaim bin Laden as their inspiration, the al-Qaida that carried out 9/11 is dead and gone. Let’s admit it: We won.