President Obama's announcement last night that al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. special operations forces outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad is welcome news indeed. The death of the man responsible for the worst attack on the U.S. in history represents a major counterterrorism victory, and long overdue justice for the victims of 9/11. But it's hardly the "end of the War on Terror," as some observers have been quick to suggest.
For one thing, although Bin Laden's death marks a significant setback for al-Qaeda, it's far from a fatal blow to it. That's because, since September 11th, sustained counterterrorism operations by the United States and its allies have prompted the Bin Laden network to undergo a major metamorphosis—from a cohesive front into a loose-knit movement of ideologically-affiliated groups. And Bin Laden, experts say, "has transitioned from being the head of a unitary terrorist organization to being the ideological leader of a 'jihadist' movement comprising many new groups that operate without direct support or direction from him or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri."
These affiliates are numerous. They include not only AQIM and AQAP, al-Qaeda's franchises in North Africa and the Persian Gulf, but Kashmiri separatist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, the Philippine kidnapping ring Abu Sayyaf, and Indonesia's radical Jemaah Islamiyah as well. These groups may be affected by the loss of their ideological inspiration, but it's too optimistic by half to assume that Bin Laden's death will prompt them to give up the fight entirely. Rather, the network built up by Bin Laden and his followers for the past two decades is bound to remain a global menace—and an enduring threat to the U.S. and its allies.
For another, our struggle with radical Islam isn't about personalities; it's about ideas. Al-Qaeda understands this very well, and over the past decade has worked diligently to convey the impression of an organization on the march, and convince the wider Muslim world that it is fighting—and winning—a religious war against the West. The logic behind this approach is clear; as Bin Laden himself boasted in the wake of the September 11th attacks, "when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse."
So far, we haven't done much to counter this perception. To be sure, we've invested heavily in targeting al-Qaeda on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, with notable effect. Yet we've spent remarkably little time discrediting the organization's radical ideology, debunking its claims about the West, and delegitimizing its authority to speak on behalf of all Muslims. And because we haven't, Bin Laden's message still carries a great deal more resonance abroad than it should.
With his death, it's al-Qaeda that now looks like the weak horse—at least for the moment. Whether we can parlay the death of al-Qaeda's leader into the terminal decline of his ideology remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that we should try.