President Obama's dramatic announcement last night that that U.S. intelligence and security forces finally caught up with Osama bin Laden was deeply satisfying. Bin Laden picked a fight with America, slaughtered thousands of our citizens, and has been called to account for his crimes. That's a huge victory for the United States in its fight against terrorism, but it's also a vindication of universal human values.
Terrorism experts have been quick to point out that al Qaeda will survive the demise of its leader. True, but for now at least, not terribly relevant. Operational control long ago passed to subordinates, and to the chiefs of offshoots in Yemen and Somalia. But in depriving al Qaeda of its most charismatic and inspirational figure, bin Laden's death will likely demoralize aspiring jihadists and lead to a further splintering of the terrorist network.
As more details emerge, some other significant implications of bin Laden's violent death are coming into clearer focus:
1. The United States is creating a credible deterrent to terrorist strikes.
In an age of suicide bombers, it's obvious that not all terrorists can be deterred by the threat of retaliation. But the certainty that America will be relentless in hunting down those who organize to attack our citizens will likely dissuade more opportunistic jihadists. While recruiting young people for suicide missions, neither bin Laden nor other top al Qaeda leaders have been in any hurry to achieve martyrdom themselves.
In addition to bin Laden, U.S. forces and drones have killed scores of al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the mastermind of al Qaeda's 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Much of bin Laden's appeal stemmed from his messianic preaching that radical Islam represents an unstoppable moral force. In his narrative, Islam's holy warriors toppled the haughty Soviet empire in Afghanistan and would soon drive the United States out of the Muslim world, if not bring it down altogether. But it's hard to sustain a belief in inevitable victory when U.S. intelligence and armed forces are more deeply engaged in the region than ever, and are decimating the ranks of terrorist leaders.
For this, Americans owe a debt of gratitude to our much-maligned intelligence services. The CIA evidently tracked bin Laden down, and with the help of Navy Seal Unit 6, killed him in a firefight that claimed no U.S. lives. Thanks to the long arm of U.S. intelligence agencies, other terrorist chiefs, like Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number 2, and Anwar al-Aulaqi, a key leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, should sleep less easily at night.
2. Pakistani duplicity remains a huge problem.
Although President Obama was careful to underscore Pakistani cooperation with U.S. intelligence efforts, today's reports suggest the killing of bin Laden was a wholly American affair. The obvious question is why Pakistani intelligence couldn't find bin Laden. He was living in a highly fortified mansion apparently build specially for him in 2005, in a city just 35 miles north of the capital of Islamabad. That city also houses units of the Pakistani army, who apparently weren't inquisitive about the mansion either.
Most damning are news reports that the United States didn't notify Pakistani officials about the operation. Unfortunately, Washington has good reason to suspect that the country's intelligence service is playing a double game on terrorism. While ostensibly cooperating with the United States, Pakistani intelligence has ties to jihadist groups that have launched terrorist attacks in Kashmir and India, as well as Taliban and affiliated groups, including the notorious Haqanni network, that launch vicious attacks on Afghan and NATO forces from its base just over the border in Pakistan's North Waziristan province.
Bin Laden's presence in Pakistan -- despite official denials -- should make Washington less defensive about launching drone missile strikes against terrorist targets there. U.S. officials should also ask why we are funneling large amounts of aid to a government that can't seem to decide which side it's on in the struggle against terrorism, even though Pakistan itself is increasingly the target of Islamist terrorists.
3. Freedom, not jihadism, is the wave of the future in the Muslim world.
The popular revolution sweeping the Middle East advances under the banner of freedom and self-government, not Islamist purity and strict enforcement of Sharia law. The Arab street isn't burning American flags. It's burning with indignation against homegrown tyrants and corruption, and asking America to back its demands for political and economic reform and representative government.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda's stock has plummeted in the region. While Americans focus on the wounds of 9/11, Muslims have been the chief victims of al Qaeda's gruesome tactics. Suicide bombings and indiscriminate attacks have claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives in Iraq alone, and the scourge has spread to Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries. Opinion polls show a dramatic decline in sympathy for al Qaeda and strong condemnation of its methods. The carnage also has led Islamist and al Qaeda theorists to renounce indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants.
The Arab revolt, in fact, is the ultimate repudiation of bin Ladenism, which posits a remorseless and apocalyptic struggle between Muslims and the rest of the world. What most Arabs and Muslims want is not to recreate the Caliphate and wage endless jihad, but the freedom to join the modern world on their own terms. In this sense, bin Laden's removal is a distraction from the main drama in the Middle East -- but a welcome one nonetheless.