TSG IntelBrief: The Enduring Legacy of Bin Laden Six Years Later
May 2, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• It has been six years since U.S. Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda.
• In those six years, the group he founded and its ideology have expanded in scale and threat.
• In Afghanistan, which the U.S. invaded because the Taliban sheltered bin Laden, the U.S. is once again being pulled into a conflict it cannot win with a strictly military strategy.
• The killing of bin Laden and prevention of another 9/11-style attack are tremendous accomplishments, but the goal of diminishing the overall terror threat has not been accomplished.
The six-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden finds the United States more deeply involved in terror-related conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia than at any time since his death. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. embarked on what it termed a ‘Global War on Terror’, with two distinct goals. The first goal was for the U.S. and its partners to destroy al-Qaeda, and prevent it from retaining the ability to threaten the U.S. and its allies with massive terrorist attacks. This effort would require an unprecedented combination of military, intelligence, law enforcement, and legislative efforts to capture or kill members of a group assessed at the time as ‘on the ropes.’ For a decade leading to the May 2, 2011 killing of bin Laden, the U.S. killed a string of High Value Targets (HVT), including many described as the ‘number three’ in al-Qaeda. The U.S. has had remarkable success against the ‘personnel’ of al-Qaeda—though the arc of many senior figures in the group has remained exceedingly long. However, the underlying factors behind al-Qaeda’s survival and revival went largely unaddressed.
Countering these larger issues behind al-Qaeda’s success has been the second tier of goal for successive U.S. administrations. These efforts included programs to counter the appeal of terrorist ideology, help friendly governments deal with terrorist and insurgent groups, and encourage and enable good governance to address the instability on which groups like al-Qaeda thrive. In this second goal, the U.S. and its partners have largely failed, though not for a lack of trying. An honest assessment of the last 16 years—and especially the years since the killing of bin Laden—would show that these goals were always beyond the scope of a ‘war on terror’ no matter how well intended, funded, and executed. Catastrophic decisions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq—of which the aftereffects continue to plague the region—have made the challenges far worse. Yet, as currently witnessed in Afghanistan, the growth of terrorism into sustained insurgency against ineffective central governments and divided societies is among the most intractable of military, counterterrorism, and geopolitical challenges.
Since bin Laden was killed, his group has thrived in regional strongholds while his ideology has gone viral. The so-called Islamic State—for all its differences with al-Qaeda—essentially follows the same violent ideology of bin Ladenism. His brand of terrorism is now at least a shadow form of government—if not an open one—in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and tribal areas of Pakistan, with no realistic cause for optimism in either the short or long term. Even after 15 years of incredible effort, the strategy of denying sanctuaries to terror groups has given way to ‘sanctuary management’ at best. In such countries, al-Qaeda affiliates that once amounted to a struggling handful of proxies have since emerged as a powerful network of terror stretching from northwest Africa to Southeast Asia. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia have all amassed unprecedented degrees of power with no sign that their respective expansions will ebb any time soon. As conflicts across the region fuel the rise of al-Qaeda’s affiliates, the effort and resources needed to reverse the tide of terrorism in these countries increases exponentially.
One of the major goals of post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies was to counter violent extremism through challenging its ideology. As with sanctuary denial, these efforts have been without marked success. The Islamic State, with its ubiquitous messaging, has convinced tens of thousands of foreign fighters to travel from over 100 countries to fight in Iraq or Syria. Untold others have sought to kill in the group’s name in Europe, the U.S., Australia, Canada, and across the Middle East. This problem of countering a violent ideology that thrives in both military successes and setbacks alike will continue to be one of the primary counterterrorism challenges for the foreseeable future.
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