By Jim Harper
What delightful news President Obama delivered last night! Osama bin Laden is dead—”al Qaeda’s leader and symbol,” as the president called him.
Bin Laden was the founder of the al Qaeda network, which executed the devastating 9/11 attacks just under a decade ago. Thousands of Americans lost their lives in those attacks, and Americans lost the sense of security and peace of mind that had taken root in the post-Cold-War era. The 9/11 attacks catalyzed two wars, costing tens of thousands of lives and well over a trillion dollars in U.S. expenditures. Personally, bin Laden gave me a darker decade than I would have had, both professionally and personally.
When I learned the news of bin Laden’s death, my first thought was of the implications for our policy. Before too long, I realized I was just plain happy about it. I took some champagne over to my neighbors, and we enjoyed watching the returns on TV.
My Cato colleagues will be parsing many details of this event over the days to come. Among the fascinating dimensions: the substantial Abottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden was apparently in hiding; the role of Pakistan’s security service, the ISI; the brilliant success of the intelligence effort and the attack on the compound; the near-term threat that al Qaeda affiliates may try to avenge the death of bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden failed to reach any of his geopolitical goals. He did not topple any Middle East dictator toward the end of establishing a Muslim caliphate. Indeed, the people of the Middle East have begun toppling their own dictators toward the end (weearnestlyhope) of establishing more liberal societies. (We examined the role of the Internet in Middle Eastern freedom movements at a Cato on Campus event a few months ago.)
Few beyond the kids that made their way to the White House Sunday night believe that bin Laden’s death mean it’s “over” for al Qaeda and terrorism. Indeed, a key question is whether bin Laden’s death will give the U.S. and its allies an upper hand against terrorism, and for how long.
In this, the issues are the same as they have always been. As we noted in the introduction to the Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: “Terrorists have motivations, there is a strategic logic to their actions, and examining these things can reveal strategies that frustrate and dissipate their efforts.”
The killing of bin Laden begs the question: How, and how well, will his death signal to terrorists that they are better off desisting from attacks and choosing other behaviors?
There will be many opportunities in the days and months ahead for American political and media figures to signal to terrorists and potential terrorists that theirs is a lost cause. The death of bin Laden simply initiates that effort.