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 (we earnestly hope) 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.
This week, watch the news around bin Laden's death not only with your own apprecation, relief, or other feelings in mind. Consider how events will be perceived in the communities around the world from which terrorists have come.
How various groups around the world interpret the death of "al Qaeda's leader and symbol" will dictate our security from terrorism going forward.
You can review our two major conferences on counterterrorism policy here and here.
All Americans celebrate the news that we have been waiting to hear for over nine and a half years: Osama Bin Laden is dead. The operation that resulted in his demise is a credit to the prowess and professionalism of the men and women in our military, and our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. All Americans — and the world — owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Bin Laden’s death does not end the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates, but it goes a long way toward delivering justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and al Qaeda’s other acts of terrorism. Importantly, the operation appears to bear resemblance to earlier operations that captured the 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. The details should remind us that some of the most effective counterterrorism techniques do not rely on tens of thousands of troops stationed indefinitely in distant lands.
It is now clear that unrelenting pressure has severely weakened al Qaeda. Its capacity to harm Americans has been degraded for years, and yet we continue to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to combating terrorism in all forms. Here’s hoping that this evening’s welcome news contributes to an evolution of U.S. counterterrorism strategy that avoids costly and counterproductive policies, and that, going forward, we will always balance our efforts to advance American security with the need to preserve our essential rights and liberties.