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What matters now is how the succession battle within Al-Qaeda pans out

By Elvin Lim


Osama bin Laden was reported to have been killed by US forces late Sunday night EDT at a compound in Abbottabad, just outside Islamabad. This will be a tremendous morale boost for the US, and it would be a crushing blow to Al Qaeda’s. Sure, bin Laden is just a figurehead of an organization which has now sprouted branches all over the world, and sure his death will likely provoke retaliatory attacks by his followers seeking to revenge his “martyrdom,” but there is little doubt that this development is a net gain for the US.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

As supporters spontaneously gathered outside the White House and in New York to sing the Star Spangled Banner and to chant “USA” upon hearing the news, we also already know that President Obama will benefit politically from this event. Fair or not, the future of the history of 9/11 will forever be: 9/11 happened under Bush’s watch, and America’s revenge occurred during Obama’s watch. (The President made sure to highlight in his late-night speech from the White House that he had ordered the successful operation in Pakistan.)

Obama was very wise to have called President Bush before his speech at the White House. He knows how history would be written, and he wants no impression that he had a hand in writing it. It almost doesn’t matter how much of a success or failure Obama’s presidency will be for the rest or possibly his next term, for Obama has gained an immunity from being ranked with the likes of James Buchanan and Warren Harding. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been poured into America’s search for justice, and the US, whose influence in the world appeared to be mocked and challenged on 9/11, has been sorely in need of vindication for nearly a decade. Whether or not our world is safer, Americans needed a psychological catharsis and a reason still to believe that we always prevail.

The CIA is also up, as is the national intelligence and the counter-terrorism community writ large. As it turns out, bin Laden was not hiding in a cave, as we might have been led to believe, but in a mansion specifically built with multiple layers of security to house a VIP in a military town near Islamabad, as if he was under the Pakistani military’s protection. Even though President Obama has claimed otherwise, it is difficult to believe that the Pakistani government, or at least the government under Pervez Musharraf, has been as cooperative with the US as they have been claiming. In the weeks and months to come, the US will have to reassess the manner in which we co-opt allies for our counter-terrorism efforts.

What matters now is how the succession battle within Al-Qaeda pans out. There has always been and will always be people who hate the United States, but it took a very rare mastermind with the organizational and motivational skills to launch a successful attack on US soil. Al-Qaeda’s international network is a motley and complex crew, so it is entirely possible that the organization caves in under its own disunity if they cannot decide on a leader to match bin Laden’s charisma and credibility (as was the case for what happened to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s insurgency group in Iraq after he was killed.) With the turmoil in the Middle East and Arab leaders focussed on internal order and with less resources to fund Al-Qaeda, and with the treasure trove of intelligence information found in the compound where bin Laden was killed, we might well be facing a turning point in the war on terrorism.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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