What bin Laden’s death means for al-Qaida, the War on Terror


Photo: Rebekka Brown/Iowa State Daily

A student holds up a printout of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive listing for Osama bin Laden with an X through his picture and the word ‘dead’ written on it Sunday night on Central Campus.

Michael Craighton

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs is looked at by many as an unprecedented, world-changing event. To determine exactly what bin Laden’s death means for the world and especially for U.S. foreign policy, it depends on exactly what aspect of his death is being analyzed.

Despite the fact that bin Laden was the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network, it doesn’t seem likely that the battle against terrorism itself will change in any substantial way.

“I wish it would mean an end to the war on terror, but it obviously doesn’t,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “Their leader, Osama, I think was more of a spiritual or political leader than he was an operative person. Because once he discovered we were following his cell phone calls and we knew where he was [in the mid-2000s] then he had more or less turned the operation over to other people.”

Richard Mansbach, professor of political science, had a similar opinion.

“He’s a symbol, more than anything else, and the symbol is removed, but the practical nature of the issue remains pretty much the same,” he said.

Mansbach described the organization of al-Qaida as “subsidiaries,” using the franchise business model used by corporations such as McDonald’s as an example.

“The general nature of Islamic terrorism and terrorism in general has so morphed over the past decade that [bin Laden’s death] probably won’t have a great impact,” Mansbach said. “In fact, if anything, I would anticipate an upsurge in terrorist incidents — I don’t know if they’ll be successful — but nevertheless, terrorist incidents.”

He said that those subsidiary al-Qaida organizations almost certainly were not taking orders from bin Laden anytime recently. The decentralized nature of modern terrorism actually makes it more dangerous, because Western intelligence agencies are less able to infiltrate the organizations. Al-Qaida, for example, has “branches” in locations ranging from Yemen to Iraq, and even places in the west, such as Brooklyn, N.Y.

The possibility of increased terrorist activity is evident in U.S. military installations around the world, where alert levels have been raised since the event.

Lt. Col. Jay Soupene, professor of military science, while unable to personally confirm that military bases have had their alert level raised, sees such an action as wise.

“I would say that it’s probably prudent based on past threats,” Soupene said.

He said that in his current position at Iowa State, he doesn’t have the perspective that those making such a decision have, but reiterated his belief that it would be a prudent choice.

Not only did the covert operation kill bin Laden and four others, but U.S. forces discovered a trove of intelligence stored throughout the mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“It’s much more than killing him — much, much more,” said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science. “It’s a big intelligence bonanza. It’s like winning the lottery for intelligence.”

“Right now, today, right as we are speaking, American intelligence agencies — all the intelligence agencies — are poring over the laptops, poring over the documents, poring over the flash drives, poring over the CDs and DVDs that they grabbed from this safe house.” Schmidt said. He added that the intelligence services will launch “a whole lot” of counterterrorism operations “as soon as they can,” and that there would have been an enormous amount of very valuable intelligence in bin Laden’s house.

Although the long-term command and operational abilities of al-Qaida  likely will be unaffected by bin Laden’s death, the U.S. raid could disrupt the individual cells in the short term.

“A lot of terrorist cells and organizations all over the world are going to be running to change where they are, what they’re doing, and so on, because they’re going to worry that information about them was secured from this place. And that means it disrupts their operations,” Schmidt said.

In the long term, however, the future of the war on terror is more uncertain. The death of bin Laden holds less importance, and al-Qaida itself is more durable, than many think.

“A lot of people in the Middle East are saying that bin Laden’s become irrelevant,” said Charles Dobbs, professor of history. “[The future of the war] really depends on what happens to the democracy movement.”

“I think [bin Laden’s death] is less important than people believe, because I don’t think Islamic extremism is as widespread,” Mansbach said, adding that the 9/11 attack was the only major success bin Laden ever achieved. 

“He never overthrew a government, he never was able to seize power, he was never able to impose a caliphate on any regime,” Mansbach said, adding that most people overlook the fact that most of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims in the Middle East.

The most likely future head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, does not enjoy nearly the same prestige nor possess the same charisma as bin Laden, Mansbach said. Regardless, neither bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri serve as a true head of the organization anymore. The future of al-Qaida itself will likely include internal strife supported by outside groups with a vested interest in the terrorist network, including Afghan clan leaders, the Chinese, the Iranians and others.

Lawmakers, such as Grassley, don’t see a quick end coming in Afghanistan, although Grassley also says this will not slow down the United States’ already planned withdrawal.

Soupene summed up the meaning of bin Laden’s death for Afghan war policy.

“I think this is a milestone event” Soupene said. “Will it change the war on terror that we’re in? I don’t know. I’m sure the president is looking at that. But what I think is very clear is that the men and women of the armed forces have stood up to face the challenges to be counted and that’s something we can all be proud of as we continue this process.”