The Tactical Irrelevance of bin Laden's Death
The killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden represents possibly the biggest clandestine operations success for the United States since the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003. The confirmation of his death is an emotional victory for the United States and could have wider effects on the geopolitics of the region, but bin Laden's death is irrelevant for al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement from an operational perspective.
Americans continued to celebrate the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden well into May 2 outside the White House, near the World Trade Center site in New York and elsewhere. The operation that led to bin Laden's death at a compound deep in Pakistan is among the most significant operational successes for U.S. intelligence in the past decade. While it is surely an emotional victory for the United States and one that could have consequences both for the U.S. role in Afghanistan and for relations with Pakistan, bin Laden's elimination will have very little effect on al Qaeda as a whole and the wider jihadist movement.
Due to bin Laden's status as the most-wanted individual in the world, any communications he carried out with other known al Qaeda operatives risked interception, and thus risked revealing his location. This forced him to be extremely careful with communications for operational security and essentially required him to give up an active role in command-and-control in order to remain alive and at large. He reportedly used a handful of highly trusted personal couriers to maintain communication and had no telephone or Internet connection at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Limited as his communications network was, if news reports are accurate, one of these couriers was compromised and tracked to the compound, enabling the operation against bin Laden.
Because of bin Laden's aforementioned communications limitations, since October 2001 when he fled Tora Bora after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he has been relegated to a largely symbolic and ideological role in al Qaeda. Accordingly, he has issued audiotapes on a little more than a yearly basis, whereas before 2007 he was able to issue videotapes. The growing infrequency and decreasing quality of his recorded messages was most notable when al Qaeda did not release a message marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September 2010 but later followed up with a tape on Jan. 21, 2011.
The reality of the situation is that the al Qaeda core - the central group including leaders like bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - has been eclipsed by other jihadist actors on the physical battlefield, and over the past two years it has even been losing its role as an ideological leader of the jihadist struggle. The primary threat is now posed by al Qaeda franchise groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the latter of which may have carried out the recent attack in Marrakech, Morocco. But even these groups are under intense pressure by local government and U.S. operations, and much of the current threat comes from grassroots and lone wolf attackers. These actors could attempt to stage an attack in the United States or elsewhere in retribution for bin Laden's death, but they do not have the training or capabilities for high-casualty transnational attacks.
STRATFOR long considered the possibility that bin Laden was already dead, and in terms of his impact on terrorist operations, he effectively was. That does not mean, however, that he was not an important ideological leader or that he was not someone the United States sought to capture or kill for his role in carrying out the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Aggressive U.S. intelligence collection efforts have come to fruition, as killing bin Laden was perhaps the top symbolic goal for the CIA and all those involved in U.S. covert operations. Indeed, Obama said during his speech May 1 that upon entering office, he had personally instructed CIA Director Leon Panetta that killing the al Qaeda leader was his top priority. The logistical challenges of catching a single wanted individual with bin Laden's level of resources were substantial, and while 10 years later, the United States was able to accomplish the objective it set out to do in October 2001. The bottom line is that from an operational point of view, the threat posed by al Qaeda - and the wider jihadist movement - is no different operationally after his death.