Osama bin Laden is dead. The news comes almost 10 years after the terrorist attack he orchestrated on 9/11. Details are still forthcoming, but late last night President Obama addressed the nation and briefly described the military operation which brought down the founder of al Qaeda. On Sunday, the president authorized an elite team of Americans to raid what U.S. intelligence believed to be bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The helicopter strike on the five-year-old mansion compound resulted in a firefight with bin Laden but no American casualties. Bin Laden was reportedly killed by a bullet to the head. U.S. forces took custody and he has already been buried at sea.
Bin Laden's death is certainly a victory for the United States as it marks the end of a decade-long effort to bring the mastermind of the worst terrorist attack on American soil to justice. And those crowds gathered outside the White House or Ground Zero have already taken the news as cause for celebration. But what happens next? And what does this actually mean for our national security?
1. al Qaeda still poses a threat and the U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence branches will carry on the fight. Even though the face of 9/11 is dead, the work to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle the al Qaeda network will continue. We're not likely to see any demonstrable change in the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. The al Qaeda network, which bin Laden founded in 1988, still operates in dozens of countries and has hundreds of autonomous cells around the world. As Dan Benjamin, the State Department's Coordinator for Counterterrorism noted just this week:
[A]lthough [al Qaeda]'s core is clearly weaker, it retains the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks. In addition, [al-Qaeda] has forged closer ties with some of the other militant groups in the region -- for example Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network -- and this has provided the group with additional capabilities to draw on.
2. National security experts anticipate retaliation. Indeed, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's former deputy and current leader of the global jihadist network, has previously pledged to retaliate were bin Laden ever killed (al-Zawahiri has been implicated in a number of terrorist acts including the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the attempted 2005 attacks on London's public transport system).
The Department of State and Department of Homeland Security are already issuing warnings. CNN reports the senior administration officials anticipate attacks inside and outside the U.S. American embassies are on high alert and cautioning American travelers of possible anti-U.S. sentiment that may result from bin Laden's death. In D.C. and New York, at least, public transit officials are stepping up security.
3. The news may strain our relationship with Pakistan. The Pakistani government had long maintained that bin Laden was not in Pakistan. Yet bin Laden was found 'hiding in plain sight' in a compound just about sixty miles from the capital of Islamabad. And there are conflicting reports about the role the Pakistani government played in the raid. The administration has stated that it did not notify the Pakistani officials in advance of the attack. In fact, Pakistan's President Asif Zardari was not called until after the attack, but it is likely that the Pakistani military was involved or at least aware of the operation.
The surgical attack in Abbottabad comes at a low point in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Earlier this year, a U.S. diplomat was detained and denied diplomatic immunity after purportedly killing two Pakistani men in self-defense. The situation strained our bilateral partnership to fight al Qaeda. But this is not the first time U.S. confidence in Pakistan has waned. Since the Cold War, United States support has swung back and forth between providing large military aid packages and suspending those funds based on our nations' respective security objectives going in and out of sync. That said, Secretary Clinton commended the Pakistani government's cooperation in the continuing effort to upset al Qaeda.
4. Obama: Strong on national security
What the Department of Defense has described as an "intelligence-driven operation" will likely affirm President Obama's national security strategy. And this is also a great win for the military and intelligence communities. The demise of bin Laden marks the end of the first phase and beginning of a new era in the effort to dismantle al Qaeda's operation and make the world safer and more secure.