The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs last Sunday is a victory for America, the West and the entire free world. The death of bin Laden is a triumph for the victims, both living and dead, of the September 11th attacks, and a sign to the world that America does not forgive or forget crimes committed against its citizens. But the killing of bin Laden promises to be more than just a long-sought, symbolic victory. Though little is known at this early date, according to U.S. officials, documents and digital data captured by the U.S. forces that stormed bin Laden’s compound are already proving enormously invaluable. After the intelligence obtained from the operation is processed, last Sunday’s raid could very well be the greatest victory so far in the war on terror -- all considerations of symbolism and justice aside.
The impact of bin Laden’s death, and America’s capture of troves of valuable intelligence, will be measurable in three key areas (not counting the aforementioned moral victory). Once he was found, the SEALs entered not just one man’s hideout, but what U.S. intelligence officials have called “an active command and control center.” In an interview with CNN, White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon compared the documents found in the compound to a “small college library,” a “really extraordinary” find — the largest ever seized in a single anti-terrorist operation.
Already made public was al-Qaeda’s interest in hitting American railway targets on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year. The intelligence suggested the attack was in the “aspirational” stage — al-Qaeda had decided to move ahead, but did not yet have a plan in place about which trains to derail or what terminals to bomb. The intelligence also confirmed what is already known — for maximum psychological effect, the organization sought to strike out at the West on civic and religious holidays. Recall, for example, the attempt by terrorist Mohamed Osman Mohamad to bomb the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in lovely Portland, Oregon. While Mohamad may have been acting alone, he shared the same fondness for symbolic dates as al-Qaeda.
It will likely not be known for some time what other plots similar to the Portland bombing or the public transit attack have been discovered. And as is often the case with intelligence operations, it is possible that many of the counterintelligence victories achieved from the raid will never be known.
It is equally easy to accept that still further lives will be saved as al-Qaeda goes into damage-control mode and attempts to cope with a catastrophic breach of its operational security. Clearly, given how long it took bin Laden to be found, the organization places a high value on secrecy. If all the various factions of al-Qaeda were to be joined at any one place, it would likely be the top — with bin Laden himself. Furthermore, the raid caught the al-Qaeda leader completely by surprise, without giving him any opportunity to warn his fellow terrorists to seek cover or to destroy evidence. Indeed, two telephone numbers were found sewn into his clothes — one can only imagine how nervous the people at the other end of those telephone lines now are.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership must scatter, assuming that everything bin Laden knew about it is now being carefully read by CIA analysts. Many high-ranking members probably already had pre-prepared evacuation plans, and new identities and shelters ready for them. But even so, their sudden, rapid movements will expose them to a greater risk of detection and capture, and should they continue to elude U.S. and international security forces, their ability to plot murder against the West will be greatly limited, as they will remain preoccupied with looking after their own safety. While the threat al-Qaeda poses will remain (and may in fact increase in the short term as it seeks retribution), anything that panics and disrupts its leadership, potentially ruining plans and disrupting operations, is good news indeed.
When al-Qaeda does eventually regroup, it will find that attacking the West is no longer its only concern. Al-Qaeda was very much tethered to Osama bin Laden, its charismatic, wealthy founder. The organization has grown and now has branches operating all over the world (many of which are no doubt unknown to us). If the organization is to remain effective, someone will have to take command, but it does not seem apparent that there is any leader-in-waiting willing and able to step up and replace bin Laden. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long-time second-in-command, has been al-Qaeda’s operational commander for years, and is admired by jihadists for his rhetoric in favor of holy war against the West, but is considered by Western intelligence to lack the charisma and personal likeability of bin Laden.
Absurd as it is to think of bin Laden as likeable, it is an inescapable fact that many of history’s most brutal madmen have had tremendous personal magnetism. Adolf Hitler electrified crowds with his speeches; Che Guevara is still beloved by many wannabe-revolutionaries to this day. What al-Zawahiri possesses in competence and ideological purity, he may lack in the people management skills necessary to hold together a geographically disparate group of fanatics.
How al-Qaeda would select a new leader is also an open question: Since the raid on bin Laden, it can be assumed that the group is being extremely careful about communicating electronically, but gathering together in one place to communicated personally is no less risky: any specific al-Qaeda leader that had been discovered by the West could lead an armed Predator drone to the rest of the organization’s leadership. This might help explain why al-Qaeda’s statement on bin Laden’s death was signed only by the group’s “general leadership.” Al-Qaeda leadership probably has no idea yet who will take over, and many of the presumed successors have reason to fear that the documents captured by the U.S. might have compromised their personal security.
Al-Qaeda remains a threat to the West, and will no doubt wish to strike out to avenge its fallen leader. And its ideology can still corrupt others into forming their own “home-grown” terror organizations that seek to carry out al-Qaeda’s goals without any formal connection to the group (such groups are known to have formed in the United States, Britain and Canada over the last several years). But while the danger remains, it has been dealt a significant blow. With luck, additional — perhaps fatal — blows will come in the days and weeks ahead.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.