Justice has been done. Nearly 10 years since the 9/11 attacks that left more than 3,000 Americans dead, Osama bin Laden was killed by a small team of U.S. military personnel operating under the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency. We first want to congratulate the men and women of our military and intelligence communities, past and present, who worked tirelessly across three Administrations to bring ultimate justice to the man who killed so many. The war on terror, though, is not over.
Bin Laden’s death is the most significant victory in the war on terror since the 9/11 attacks, more important than death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. Bin Laden’s elimination vindicates U.S. strategy in the region, started under President George W. Bush, and it will be seen as a major success for the United States, showing the world that America will remain committed to hunting down its enemies as long it takes.
But while America should take great satisfaction in this tremendous achievement, the United States must remain vigilant against a terrorist threat that is not yet vanquished. Terrorists are trying to attack us both at home and abroad; with 38 terrorist plots foiled since 9/11, these attempts will certainly continue, if not get worse.
With bin Laden’s death, which came by way of a small, covert strike force, there will be an impulse to believe that this action validates that covert operations are a cheap and simple answer to the most vexing national security problems. They are not. They are just one tool in the tool box. Among those tools, too, is the strategic and lawful interrogation of detainees, including those at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama and Congress should not use bin Laden’s death as an excuse to turn back the clock on the counterterrorism tools we need, like the PATRIOT Act.
That full range of tools must be applied to the United States’ continued efforts against terrorism in Afghanistan and around the world. Bin Laden’s death is a demoralizing blow against al-Qaeda that could be followed up by additional strikes against other al-Qaeda leaders. But though this is a significant achievement, much work remains. First and foremost, the United States must finish the job in Afghanistan and not relent in defeating the Taliban.
The operation also highlights that Pakistan is truly at the epicenter of global terrorism. The fact that the world’s most-wanted terrorist was captured in a major Pakistani city 150 kilometers from the nation’s capital should silence those Pakistanis who rejected the idea that bin Laden was hiding in their country as a Western conspiracy. It should also strengthen President Obama’s hand in pushing the Pakistanis to continue to take action against other terrorists on their soil.
The details on Pakistan’s involvement in the operation are still unclear. If Pakistani intelligence played a substantial role in locating bin Laden, it would generate a deep reservoir of American goodwill for Pakistan. If, on the other hand, it was largely a U.S. unilateral operation, the positive impact on relations would be more short-lived.
Ayman al-Zawahiri will almost certainly take over as al-Qaeda’s new chief. Zawahiri had in recent years become both the public voice and operational planner of al-Qaeda. However, since bin Laden was the founder and spiritual head of al-Qaeda, his death will demoralize the ranks of the organization and thus will likely be a major strategic setback for the movement. Zawahiri does not carry the same mythical aura as bin Laden and thus the organization will likely lose its luster among young recruits.
But threats remain. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is responsible for three terror plots here in the last 18 months, something that the organization’s core could not accomplish. And, likewise, the Taliban just last weekend launched a new offensive against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Those are facts the U.S. government must bear in mind as the debate begins over the defense budget. There is no “peace dividend” with bin Laden’s death — our military is underfunded, and we must not shortchange our military men and women who are fighting to protect America.
Though al-Qaeda suffered a significant blow last night, it was not a fatal one. It is worth stating again: the war on terrorism is not over, and the war in Afghanistan is not won. America must remain vigilant and continue its global fight against terrorism.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
President, The Heritage Foundation