The killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan is the most significant moment in the US campaign against al-Qaeda since the 9/11 attacks that brought bin Laden to the world’s attention. Coming nearly ten years after 9/11, the US operation seems to mark the closing of a circle. President Obama described the killing as an act of “justice” when he announced it on US television. While that may seem to European ears a discordant way of describing the death of a wanted man in a shoot-out, it was always unlikely that bin Laden could be captured alive. The death of bin Laden, the presiding spirit of 9/11, combined with the forthcoming trial of the attacks’ mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, essentially completes the US mission of achieving a reckoning with the architects of that devastating day.
But it is one thing to seek justice or revenge (the relationship between the two appears rather more complex than Obama’s speech admitted) for a single terrorist incident, and another thing to deal with the threat of future attacks. The biggest question left by bin Laden’s death is what it means for the US “war on terror”, which over the last decade has substantially reshaped America’s engagement with the world. Since taking office in early 2009, Obama has tried to reorient US policy away from a preoccupation with the threat of terrorism; at the same time, in Afghanistan and in dealing with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the legacy of his predecessor’s actions has provided him with some of his most difficult challenges.
Despite his professed determination to restore America’s reputation for respecting international law and human rights, Obama has not succeeded in ending the detention without trial of many dozens of terrorist suspects, or in bringing the most high-profile detainees to trial in ordinary US criminal courts. Obama halted the use of the term “war on terror”, but in most respects he retained the idea of an armed conflict against an international terrorist group that was fought across a global battlefield – even if he did try to fight this conflict in a way that showed greater respect for international law.
Does the death of bin Laden mean that the “war on terror” is over? Already before the US killed its leader, al-Qaeda was on the defensive. There have been ideological splits among the adherents of international jihad, a decline in support throughout the Muslim world, and most recently – as Daniel Korski wrote yesterday – al-Qaeda has been eclipsed by the popular pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab spring. But this does not indicate that the threat of Islamist terrorism is over. In the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region, and in Yemen, Somalia, Central Asia and the Maghreb, terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda continue to operate. The bombing last week in Morocco was a reminder of this. It remains unclear how far bin Laden was involved in operational decisions in recent years, but in day-to-day terms, these groups may not be significantly affected by bin Laden’s death. It is also true that the areas where Islamist terrorism has established itself tend to be on the fringes of the Arab world where a transition to democracy still appears precarious – as, most obviously, in Yemen.
Yet the killing of bin Laden is likely to have a significant effect. Most crucially, he was the charismatic figurehead and inspiration holding the diverse global operation of al-Qaeda together. By all accounts, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri is a disputatious and uninspiring leader who could not hope to match bin Laden’s appeal or his ability to transcend differences of opinion. Bin Laden’s death can be expected to remove much of the sense of a common movement and historic destiny linking the different al-Qaeda franchises around the world. This may in turn have an effect on the morale of fighters and potential recruits, further weakening the idea that they (rather than the democracy protesters in the Arab street) are on the side of history as they see it. Another important effect could be that it offers the opportunity for the United States finally to move beyond the idea that the fight against al-Qaeda is a single global struggle.
The idea of the “global war on terror” was at the root of many of the aspects of American counterterrorism policy that many Europeans (and much of the rest of the world) have found most objectionable – including the capture of individuals around the world to be held together at Guantanamo as enemy fighters. Now it may be possible for the United States to shed this harmful metaphor once and for all. If Osama bin Laden was to a large extent the symbolic figurehead who held the global entity of al-Qaeda together, his death should mean that the United States can at last disaggregate the various local struggles of Islamist terror movements and stop seeing them as part of a single armed conflict. The United States could then decide on the most appropriate approach to each individual situation – indeed in some cases, as in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, it would make sense to allow European countries like France to take the lead.
The United States should seize the moment of bin Laden’s death to adopt an approach to counterterrorism that sees it as a series of local operations to be conducted with an eye to regional political, economic and cultural – as well as military – circumstances. This will still leave a series of tricky challenges – not least in Afghanistan, where the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader will not dissolve the complexities of finding a political solution to the Taliban insurgency.
And it leaves the problem of Guantanamo – indeed some in the United States are using the fact that intelligence used to track down bin Laden came in part from detainees to argue that the interrogation programme worked after all. There is a danger that the Guantanamo detainees could go from being a global source of concern to America’s forgotten prisoners, as the focus of counterterrorism shifts back to the situation on the ground in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Instead, in the months ahead, the US administration should use bin Laden’s death for a new push to release detainees to their home countries or other countries where any threat they pose could be contained through local means. The fight of the United States and its allies against Islamist terrorism may not be over – but after bin Laden’s death it looks less than ever like a global war.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.