Osama bin Laden's capture or death, the focus of renewed American military attention, would greatly help the war on terror — but not in the way you might expect.
It would not do that much to prevent jihadist violence.
True, in some cases, seizing a terrorist leader leads directly to a reduction in threat or even to the decomposition of his organization. Consider these examples :
Abimael Guzman, head of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) gang in Peru, was captured in 1992 and his Maoist organization went into a tailspin, ending its threat to overturn the government. A rump force in turn continued to fight until its leader, Oscar Ramirez Durand, was captured in 1999.
Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (Worker's Party of Kurdistan) or PKK in Turkey, was captured in 1999 and his Maoist organization immediately deteriorated. When Öcalan called from captivity for the PKK to renounce its war against the Turkish state, it effectively did so.
Saddam Hussein, former dictator of Iraq, was captured in December 2003, and the terrorist insurgency he headed over the previous eight months shuddered to an end. (In contrast, militant Islamic violence continued unabated.)
Terrorist specialist Michael Radu points out that the same pattern also held with the capture of leaders of smaller terrorist groups, including Andreas Baader of Germany's Rote Armee (Red Army) and Shoko Asahara of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo. A similar steep decline, Mr. Radu notes, will likely recur should Velupillai Prabhakaran of Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) be captured or killed.
In all these cases, the leaders offer characteristics — charisma, power, ruthlessness — critical to their organizations. If no other figure can replace these strengths, then rivalries, incoherence, and decline result.
But bin Laden's elimination in several ways would not fit this pattern.
- Being only one of his organization's key figures, his disappearance will not devastate Al Qaeda.
- Al Qaeda is more "an ideology, an agenda and a way of seeing the world," writes Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda : Casting a Shadow of Terror, than an operating terrorist force.
- And Al Qaeda being just one of many jihadist organizations around the world, its decline would do little to abate the wave of militant Islamic violence in such places as Algeria, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
While bin Laden personally symbolizes militant Islam and his continued ability to elude coalition force inspires his Islamist followers, his capture or execution would have a mainly psychological impact by demoralizing those followers. His elimination would certainly be a blow to his movement, but one it could readily recover from. "His capture won't end terrorism's danger," Robert Andrews rightly noted in a recent USA Today article.
Ending terrorism requires more than targeting terrorists, their leaders, or their organizations. It requires recognizing and defeating the body of ideas known as militant Islam or Islamism. The war cannot be won until politicians and others focus on this ideology rather than on terrorism, which is merely its manifestation.
This said, bin Laden's capture or death could indeed have a major beneficial impact on the war on terror — by helping to re-elect President Bush against his presumptive Democratic opponent. Who wins the forthcoming presidential election will deeply affect the future conduct of the global war on terror. To adopt Fred Barnes's formulation in the Weekly Standard, "George W. Bush is a September 12 person. John Kerry is a September 10 person." Just as Saddam Hussein's capture in December helped to end Howard Dean's candidacy for president, so bin Laden's capture might harm Senator Kerry's.
That's because Mr. Kerry has lashed out at the way the war on terror is conducted, blaming Mr. Bush for everything from faulty tactics (allowing bin Laden to escape near capture in Tora Bora), to poor strategy ("Only an ad hoc strategy to keep our enemies at bay"), to an overall failed policy ("The most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history.") Mr. Kerry goes so far as to claim that America is worse off now than on September 11, 2001.
Such over-the-top criticisms render Mr. Kerry vulnerable should bin Laden actually be caught or killed. Which makes catching or killing bin Laden truly an urgent war imperative.
May 1, 2011 update: For an update, see "Thoughts on the Killing of Osama bin Laden."