What Osama's Assassination Tells Us About the War on Terror

A success that will unearth critical intelligence about our enemy.

Last night, President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed in a gun battle in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It is being reported that four others, including one of Bin Laden's sons, died in the fight. The U.S. is now in possession of his body and has tested his DNA for confirmation. This is a momentous event in the war against radical Islam that should be celebrated by all and as the story develops, crucial information about the state of the war will come forth.

The details coming out reveal that “U.S. Joint Special Operations Command Special Mission Unit (SMU) from the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU — formerly known as Seal Team Six) did the shooting. There were other JSOC spotters on the ground, as well as two special operations helicopters and an unmanned drone overhead.” One of the helicopters crashed due to mechanical failures. A female who was used as a shield by Bin Laden and his protectors was killed and other women are being treated and will be valuable sources of information.

Bin Laden was apparently living comfortably in a city between Islamabad and Peshawar. President Obama said that Bin Laden was killed in a “compound” after intelligence was received in August. CNN originally reported that he was in a “mansion.” It is said to have a security wall between 12 and 15 feet high and of very large size. The site has already been mapped on Google, showing that a hospital and cinema are nearby. A police station is only 800 feet away, though the caption says it was slated for demolition. This location shows that he was not living in complete isolation, such as in a cave or deep in the mountains.

President Obama emphasized that the victory came with Pakistani cooperation but this location indicates that Bin Laden had inside help. Time will tell if the intelligence that pinpointed Bin Laden came from this cooperation or whether it was developed by the U.S. and the Pakistanis were forced to cooperate. The story of this victory will tell us a lot about the state of Pakistani cooperation and how to collect precise intelligence on the most secretive targets. This success will unearth a tremendous amount of intelligence that will prove very useful in combating terrorism.

It will be vital that the world watch for the reaction in the Islamic world. This will be the biggest indication of where Bin Laden’s support runs the deepest. Polls consistently show that Bin Laden has suffered a dramatic decline in popularity in the Middle East, including in Pakistan and this may well have been a factor in his demise. Al-Qaeda’s killing of eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims and institutions of vicious theocracy caused a major backlash. It is inevitable that sympathizers will attempt to launch immediate small-scale reprisals with little preparation, but this is not reflective of opinion overall. The key factor to watch for will be large-scale demonstrations mourning Bin Laden or the absence of celebratory gatherings.

Bin Laden’s operational role in terrorism has been downplayed, though he is believed to have been involved in the terrorist plots in Europe last year. Bin Laden may not have played a hands-on role in terrorism but his death is certainly an ideological defeat for terrorists. Notably, a mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri and key spiritual influence over Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism as a whole, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (also known as Dr. al-Fadl) publicly turned on the terrorist group for its tactics. He blamed Al-Qaeda for causing the bloodshed of Muslims by provoking the West and amazingly, argued that the “misery” of the Muslim world and defeats on the battlefield are signs of Allah’s disapproval.

“He [al-Sharif] says that whenever infidels defeat Muslims, there can be only one explanation: Allah has allowed that as a punishment for the Muslims’ sins. Worth remembering the next time someone tells you that winning battles gets us nowhere, that it only makes martyrs of the militants,” writes Cliff May.

Al-Sharif’s indictment of Al-Qaeda was so devastating for Al-Qaeda that Ayman al-Zawahiri had to make a lengthy public response. It is unknown how many Muslims follow al-Sharif’s logic about the theological implications of Al-Qaeda’s defeats, but he is a very important figure in the Muslim world. The U.S. military says that the Taliban is suffering from morale deficiencies and so the Islamic extremist world is in need of encouragement. Bin Laden’s death, which did not come at a time of his choosing, will make enemies of the U.S. question their own safety and rid extremists of their best example of American weakness.

A key question moving forward will be the secession. The logical replacement for Bin Laden is Ayman al-Zawahiri, his second-in-command. However, security measures have resulted in decentralization and other leaders have come to the fore. The chief example is Anwar al-Awlaki an American imam who now leads Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His group has proven very effective in fomenting homegrown extremism and has been tied to several plots in recent years, including the Fort Hood shooting, the Christmas Day underwear bomb plot of 2009 and the plot to blow up cargo planes with modified ink cartridges. He has become an extremely influential voice in the extremist world, with terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann saying that al-Awlaki’s preaching continues to “surface in every single homegrown terrorism investigation, whether in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or beyond.”

Bin Laden’s death won’t end the war against radical Islam, as the ideology was never limited to one individual. However, this victory will bring critical intelligence about Al-Qaeda and other terrorists and will cause a crisis in the group. It will help frighten the enemies of the U.S. It will teach us valuable lessons in how to fight the wars of today and the future. The conflict will rage on but no matter how Islamic extremism spins it, this is an undeniable victory.