The long awaited demise of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. military is a historic event, and a crowning accomplishment in the global struggle against terror. Its consequences are likely to be felt long after the initial reactions to the event subside and the media turn to alternative stories and dramas du jour. Operational, inspirational and motivational consequences are likely to unfold.
On the operational level, even though al Qaeda "central" has been to a large extent dismantled and run into hiding, there is nonetheless evidence that bin Laden continued to sign off on the largest plots and operations of the al Qaeda network and its affiliates. Though another leader is likely to soon step into bin Laden's shoes, none of the potential candidates for the position has the stature, charisma and gravitas to exert the leadership that he has provided. The splintering of al Qaeda is likely to be magnified and the coordination of its activities is likely to be reduced.
Arguably, of a far greater importance than the operational level, is the inspirational level. Because of his considerable stature and charisma, bin Laden's pronouncements were inspirational to thousands of impressionable youths ready to radicalize. He was a symbol and a model. A person who sacrificed his material interests for the cause, who demonstrated courage in battle, and was able to organize spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies. His demise is likely to considerably hurt al Qaeda propaganda attempts and its ability to turn enthusiastic youths to the cause of jihad.
The killing of bin Laden is likely to deal a serious blow to potential recruits' motivation to embark on terrorism and embrace the terrorism-justifying ideologies that portray as effective tools to accomplish political objectives. Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. The killing of bin Laden without his strategy having accomplished any of its stated political objectives, the killing two years earlier of Vellupilai Prabakharan, the supreme leader of the Tamil Tigers (and the dismantlement of the TT as a force to reckon with in Sri Lanka), indicates that terrorism's likelihood of success is slim, and such lowered expectancy of success, to the extent that it is properly advertised, is likely to act as a coolant on hot-headed youths ready to join in the fight.
Intriguingly, the tenacity, determination and relentlessness showed by the U.S. military and its Commander in Chief fly in the face of the terrorists' propaganda that the West has a short time span and lacks the patience and the persistence to win the struggle, the idea that while "Americans have the watches, terrorists have the time." It took almost a decade to hunt bin Laden down, and the patience and resolve of the American military and its staying the course despite immense obstacles shows that it is not only the terrorists who "have the time."
None of the above is to be taken to suggest that the war on terror is over. To twist Winston Churchill's famed Dunkirk speech, this is hardly the end or even the beginning of the end, though it might be the end of the beginning. In the short run, we might even witness an intensification of terrorist attempts (as suggested by other instances of targeted killings of terrorist figures). But the emotional reaction of terrorist leaders fueling these attempts may not last very long, whereas the operational, inspirational and motivational consequences of bin Laden's exit are likely to endure.
Beyond the need to press on with counterterrorism activities hitting the iron while it is hot, and the maintenance of supreme vigilance in anticipation of violent reactions on part of the al Qaeda network, it is equally important to engage in an explanatory campaign that casts the correct light on bin Laden's killing and that frames terrorist tactics as fumbling, ineffective and counterproductive. Such attempts may well contrast the futility of the jihad approach to the Arab Spring that peacefully and with civility promise to change the face of the Middle East.