The threat of Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden

Essay 2013 21 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: USA


When in May 2011 American TV networks first announced the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the nation-wide scenes of publicly expressed joy and relief witnessed thereafter may have seemed to some strikingly reminiscent of that other memorable day in mid-August 1945 when American citizens could at long last celebrate victory over the Japanese Empire in World War II. However, one might argue, is it possible that popular jubilation over Bin Laden's death might ultimately not also have reflected some kind of premature or even false belief in Al-Qaeda's simultaneous and permanent demise as a functioning terrorist organization as well?

To be sure, some experts had already maintained before that Al-Qaeda had effectively ceased to represent an imminent danger to America’s national security, notably by drawing attention to the so-called “securitization”[1] and inflation of danger surrounding the global terrorism phenomena.[2] Nevertheless, such views sharply contrasted with the notion that even in the event of Bin Laden's death Al-Qaeda would basically still retain some latent capacity to inflict further damage of one kind or another to the West.[3] Yet in order to conclusively establish as to whether with the loss of its most prominent figurehead Al-Qaeda now does indeed no longer pose an international threat, it is, however, essential to first clarify what type of terrorist organization it actually is, in particular if it is even possible to define it in terms of one single, homogeneous and coherently structured entity, or whether on account of its inter-continental network and global outreach it rather makes for an opponent that can essentially not be gotten at through conventional means and tactics of anti-terrorism strategies?[4]

In so doing, any theoretical preoccupation with it would do well to break the term down into three separate yet interrelated manifestations of what is generally subsumed under the generic term “Al-Qaeda”, notably by drawing analytical distinctions between its inner leadership core, its affiliate branches and the putatively attractive power of its ideology. It is above all by discriminating between these three discrete levels of danger while, however, also remaining conscious of their correlative effects upon one another that one may ultimately be able to discern that even with Bin Laden gone, Al-Qaeda will likely continue to remain a very real and not immaterial threat to the international community in the years ahead.

The first area of analysis concerns the arguably most widely noticed facet of Al-Qaeda, namely the struggle against its upper leadership echelon. In particular under the Obama administration governmental emphasis shifted towards a more aggressive counter-terrorism strategy based on the tactical concurrence of selective drone attacks and covert special operations.[5] That strategy has of late indeed severely compromised Al-Qaeda's executive core, not only by putting an added strain on its internal communication and plotting, but essentially also by taking out in one and the same person its spiritual leader as well as the potentially most significant link between the organization's individual sub-groups.

Especially in loosely structured networks such as Al-Qaeda solitary individuals in high leadership positions often constitute the most powerful and sustaining link of internal cohesion between the different branches and levels of the organization, all the more so when – as in Bin Laden's case - they are cast in the iconic role of the one holy warrior who had actually succeeded in masterminding a devastating strike at the very heart of the much despised American nemesis.[6] Yet in addition to the loss of leadership, the disruption of its internal chain of command and the slowdown of ongoing operations, his death may, moreover, also have derogated Al-Qaeda's operative strength by depriving it of no small and insignificant a source of financial funding and sponsorship.[7]

Nevertheless, such leadership weakness may ultimately be but of a temporary nature if the United States does not systematically keep up its operations to preclude Al-Qaeda from gradually refilling it's presently disrupted command structure. Accordingly, it is at this critical juncture that America probably needs to even further expand its missions against terrorist sanctuaries along the Pakistani-Afghanistan borderline. In so doing, drone attacks will arguably remain an effective means for neutralizing key enemy figureheads, although only if the United States simultaneously also succeeds in solving that strategy's most inimical deficiency: its lack of occasional accuracy and, by extension, the collateral damage it almost invariably causes.[8] For not only is the tacit acceptance of killing civilians immoral and reproachable, but it could, moreover, also prove self-defeating in the long run if an alienated local populace increasingly comes of the opinion that instead of helping authorities to expose potential terrorist threats in their midst by providing valuable information about a target's geographical whereabouts, they must first turn against an enemy which - at least in their appreciation - consistently lets sudden and anonymous death rain over their homes and families.[9]

Moreover, drone attacks may also only ever so much contribute towards permanently decimating Al-Qaeda's leadership; they may kill or cripple individuals, but they ultimately cannot uproot in its entirety the wider extremist infestation that has spread cross-country over Pakistani and Afghanistan territory. It is for these obvious limitations that attempts at a total and comprehensive defeat of its inner leadership circle must accordingly not solely be aimed at individual persons, but also at denying them their operating grounds in Afghanistan and, even more significantly, their secluded retreats in Pakistan's mountainous border regions as well. In reference to Sebastian Krasner, it is, however, first and foremost the United States itself which will therefore be obliged to seriously consider an elementary revision of its present course vis-à-vis the governing elite of the latter country.[10]

Evidently, the already strained diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the United States were eventually only further exacerbated by the US' single-handedly conducted operation against Bin Laden on Pakistani territory without official permission of the country's acting government.[11] After all, Pakistanis too are understandably not keen on having foreign states every so often violate their sovereignty and territorial integrity.[12] Still, this doesn’t mean that the United States is to simply give up on this seminal and potentially decisive front of the war on terrorism, but only that it may be both advisable and expedient to wage that battle with a different – or at least significantly modified - strategy.

In essence, such a revised approach must call for Pakistan to finally assume a much more active role against Al-Qaeda, one which while respecting its national sovereignty would basically apply a mixture of diplomatic coercion and economical incentives to entice its government into adopting a more rigorous stance with regard to the disruption of Al-Qaeda’s leadership capabilities. After all, who would be more suited to prohibit terrorist activities than native military and police units who do not only speak the local language, but who are also frequently accustomed to the same sets of social and religious traditions and may thus more readily receive the approval and support of civilian communities?

Accordingly, the pivotal question is: how are Pakistani authorities ultimately to be made more compliant? It is precisely in this respect that the United States must meet its self-appointed leadership role in rolling back global terrorism - not by fighting this war alone, but rather by involving Pakistani units as a sort of striking force proxy on that crucial front of the conflict. To that end, it must, however, first start making use of the underestimated diplomatic leverage it actually holds over the Pakistani government,[13] notably by putting into perspective the notion that since in spite of their hostility to certain American schemes and designs, cooperation with the military elites steering Pakistani affairs is after all preferable to the prospect of having militant fanatics take over control of a nuclear-armed nation, the United States must consequently under no circumstances jeopardize a potential falling out with the government's decision-makers.[14]


[1] B. Buzan, ‘Will the ‘global war on terrorism’ be the New Cold War?’, International Affairs, 82:6 (November 2006), pp. 1101-1118; M. Kelstrup, 'Globalisation and societal insecurity: the securitization of terrorism and competing strategies for global governance', in Stefano Guzzini and Dietrich Jung, eds, Contemporary Security analysis and Copenhagen peace research (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 106-116.

[2] J. Mueller, ‘Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy’, Foreign Affairs, 85:5 (September/October 2006), pp. 2-8.

[3] L. Richardson, ‘A war that cannot be won’, The World Today, 62:8/9 (Aug/Sep 2006), p. 10; A. K. Cronin, ‘How Al-Qaeda Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups’, International Security, 31:1 (Summer 2006), pp. 39.

[4] Cronin (2006), pp. 32-34; p. 41.

[5] M. Apuzzo (Associated Press), “Obama strategy widens assault on terrorists”, The Army Times, 12 February 2010, http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/02/ap_obama_terrorism_strategy_021210/ [accessed 26 November 2012].

[6] F. Miller, “Re-reading the Origins of Al-Qaeda through Osama Bin Laden’s Former Audiocassette Collection” in L.M. Fenner, M.E. Stout and J.L. Goldings (eds), 9.11. Tens Years Later. Insights on Al-Qaeda’s Past & Future Through Captured Records Collection(Washington, D.C.: The John Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, 2012), pp. 100-111.

[7] N. Vardi, “The Financial Fallout of Osama Bin Laden’s Death,” Forbes, 3 May 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanvardi/2011/05/03/the-financial-fallout-of-osama-bin-ladens-death/ [accessed November 26 2012].

[8] P. Bergen and K. Tiedemann, ‘Washington’s Phantom War’, Foreign Affairs, 90:4 (July/August 2011), pp. 12-18.

[9] Bergen and Tiedemann (2011), p. 14.

[10] S. Krasner, ‘Talking tough to Pakistan. How to End Islamabad’s Defiance’, Foreign Affairs, 91:1 (January/February 2012), pp. 87-96.

[11] H. Siddique, P. Owen and R. Adams, “Osama bin Laden’s death: aftermath and reaction“, The Guardian, 5 May 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/may/05/osama-bin-laden-death-aftermath [accessed November 26 2012].

[12] Bergen and Tiedemann (2011), p. 16.

[13] P.D. Miller, ‘How to Exercise Leverage over Pakistan’, The Washington Quarterly(Fall 2012), pp. 37-52.

[14] Miller (2012), p. 39; Krasner (2012), p.88, pp. 94-95; D. Hiro, “Islamabad’s Nuclear Leverage”, The American Conservative, 18 October 2012, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/islamabads-nuclear-leverage/ [accessed 28 November 2012].


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Title: The threat of Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden