I will focus my remarks around Osama bin Laden’s removal.
First, on the man himself;
Next, on the organization he founded – al-Qaeda;
Then, on the threat from al-Qaeda today;
Then, on why we were able to achieve what we did; and
And finally, on some urgent questions arising from his death.
I – Osama bin Laden
First, a word about the man;
As you all know, a U.S. strike team stormed a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed him at age 53. Thankfully, no Americans were lost.
Nothing, of course, can ever compensate the pain and suffering inflicted by this mass murderer and his henchmen. But his removal is a source of comfort for all of us, and should especially be a source of comfort for the thousands of families here in America and around the globe who mourn the victims of his brutality.
Osama bin Laden was the most infamous terrorist of our time. He was also the most successful. Born into Saudi riches, he led a self-declared holy war against the U.S. His focus was not on American culture or values or its free way of life, but invariably he focused on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
He was a mass killer. He became the world’s most wanted man. His strongest conviction was that he was an instrument of God’s will. He was a religious zealot. He died a lonely, frustrated, even bored man, isolated from the world in a remote compound, but still plotting terrorist attacks, wanting to kill more Americans.
Osama bin Laden was the founder of al-Qaeda and its only leader. He brought together terrorist elements under one movement. He was the mastermind of 9/11 and the attacks on the American embassies in East Africa. He commanded and condoned the killing of Arabs.
But in his limited circle, he was popular and a charismatic leader – for them, he was the gold standard for fighting American power and influence. For a while, his views resonated widely in the Muslim world. In the end, he was a hero to very few.
I first became aware of him in the mid-1990s, when he was linked to the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. (Incidentally, during the deliberations of the 9/11 Commission, I often marveled at his ability to persuade 19 young men – the 9/11 hijackers – to go to their deaths for the cause.)
I would be hard pressed to name a single person in recent times who has had more impact on America than Osama bin Laden. He has truly changed the history of the world. Because of him and the acts of terror he created, and our reactions to him,
Thousands of lives have been lost, and many more disrupted;
Trillions of dollars spent in 2 wars (Afghanistan and Iraq);
New, massive government departments created and reorganized;
Government’s role and budgets dramatically increased;
The U.S. military and federal and local law enforcement agencies transformed;
Debates erupted (e.g., over the role of torture in interrogation and warrantless wiretapping);
American foreign policy, even its image, upended;
Security checks at every turn (including in our airports and the constant demand on us for picture identification cards);
And, of course, huge efforts to provide more security in the private sector and a whole new way of looking at our personal security.
He spoke, I’m told, in lyrical Arabic, often quoting the Koran, and expressing the grievances of many Arabs about American policies. He was celebrated in that world for his personal bravery and for his self-denial in foreswearing the comforts of his inheritance.
His legend will live on.
At his death, the impact of his views were diminishing for most Arabs and, in some respects, he was an echo of a bygone era.
The Arab Spring has been drowning out Osama bin Laden’s appeal. Osama bin Laden may have been removed from managing terrorist operations – although some information taken from his compound suggests he continued to play a direct role in plotting attacks from his hideout – and his popularity in the Arab world had plummeted. He was clearly on the downward slope.
There is some difference of opinion on his role at his death. My personal view is that for the last decade, Osama bin Laden has been a figurehead more than a mastermind. I do not think that a man without a telephone or access to the Web, relying on couriers, could have been a prime mover in more recent terrorist operations. There can be no doubt about his symbolic importance.
The single act of his death does not change everything – nothing ever changes everything – it does not, for example, resolve two messy wars. We should receive some satisfaction from his death, but not exaltation. In his death, he can still inspire terrorist attacks. Men die, symbols do not.
But it is worth noting that in the Middle East, news of his death was greeted with ambivalence, and even indifference.
Whether it is a turning point in our fight against terrorism remains to be seen.
But his removal is a rare event, something all of us can agree upon and feel good about.
II – Al-Qaeda
Next, a word about the organization he founded – al-Qaeda;
Although Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is not. Al-Qaeda and allied groups continue to pose a threat to the U.S. The war against terror is not won. The work is not done. It is not time to declare victory.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates will almost certainly attempt to avenge him. They will not necessarily attack soon.
Osama bin Laden leaves behind the al-Qaeda organization. Al-Qaeda is a network, not a hierarchy.
The danger from al-Qaeda is not just terrorist attacks, but also its ideological message that we feared had an appeal across the Muslim world.
Over a period of years, al-Qaeda has been very adaptive and resilient. Osama bin Laden’s death is certainly a setback for al-Qaeda but likely not its demise. Al-Qaeda can still spread havoc, but it has lost political momentum.
The threat from al-Qaeda is more diverse and more complex than ever – although less severe than the catastrophic proportions of the 9/11 attacks. It continues to hope to inflict mass-casualties in the U.S.
Target killing of a leader (as the Israelis have discovered) does not necessarily paralyze the group, and may even result in the rise of a more dangerous leader.
Al-Qaeda has been marked by rapid decentralization. The most significant threats to American national security come from the affiliates of Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda – like al-Qaeda in Yemen under Anwar al-Awlaki’s leadership, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Qaeda will be searching for an effective leader. Its likely next leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will almost certainly struggle to keep al-Qaeda relevant. He is likely to be the last man standing in the struggle for leadership, i.e. the likely successor to Osama bin Laden.
Internal dissent within the organization is certainly possible.
We should not underestimate al-Zawahiri. He is extremely pious; ruthless; he is not a lightweight; he has been instrumental in al-Qaeda‘s strategy, development, and evolution over a period of years. His whereabouts is unknown, although we think it is likely in North or South Waziristan in Pakistan.
III – Threat
Next, a word about the threat from al-Qaeda;
Al-Qaeda will not give up. It will seek revenge and Osama bin Laden’s demise is not the demise of terrorism. The level of the threat is likely to persist for years.
We cannot let our guard down. We must not become complacent, but remain vigilant and resolute.
We are more secure than we were before 9/11, but further improvements in our security can still be achieved. While a 9/11-type attack is less likely, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are persistent and their associations and tactics are diverse.
Threats are measured by intent and capability. Al-Qaeda continues to have the intent and reach to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack.
Al-Qaeda’s capabilities to implement large-scale attacks are less formidable than they were ten years ago.
The threat emanates not just from Al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan, but from affiliates in other parts of South Asia and in failing or failed states such as Yemen and Somalia, and increasingly from homegrown terrorists.
Indeed, U.S. citizens and residents have played increasingly prominent roles in al-Qaeda leadership and aligned groups. Some of these U.S.-based jihadist militants have been recruited by overseas terrorist groups while others have been inspired to engage in attacks on their own. Those so-called “lone wolves,” who are not connected to formal terrorist organizations, are the most difficult to detect, in part because they do not fit any particular ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile.
In assessing terrorist threats to the American homeland, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials now call attention to Al-Qaeda’s strategy of “diversification” — mounting attacks involving a wide variety of perpetrators of different national and ethnic backgrounds. This strategy seeks to defeat any attempt to “profile” actual and would-be terrorists.
IV – Achievement
Next, on our achievement;
The death of Osama bin Laden is a significant achievement of the United States intelligence and military forces – the most significant achievement to date in our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda. His end came, not with a massive knockout blow, but a carefully planned and executed Special Forces operation. The sheer audacity of the raid was impressive.
President Obama made the decision to go after Osama bin Laden and deserves the credit he is receiving, as the polls suggest. His boost in the polls is likely to be short-lived simply because, for most Americans: It is still the economy.
President Bush, too, deserves credit for his steadfast pursuit of Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
The raid took hard work, cooperation, vigilance, and tenacity, over a period of years. It involved surveillance, analysis of many bits of information, interceptions, and the extraordinary skills of our Special Operations Forces.
The CIA and the military worked together seamlessly. The raid was a culmination of intense and tireless efforts on the part of many dedicated national security personnel over a period of many years.
It was a highly complex, innovative, and clandestine operation that led us to Osama bin Laden. We would get a bit of intelligence from one source, carefully analyze it, and then use it to drive further efforts and operations.
A simple intercepted phone call proved critically important when the response to the caller said, “I’m back with the people I was with before” – that is, he had returned to Osama bin Laden.
It used the full range of our capabilities, both in collecting intelligence from human and technical sources, and subjecting it to very rigorous analysis by our government’s leading experts on bin Laden and his organization.
At the end, the President was given accurate, relevant, and timely intelligence. He made the decision among the options of 1) a raid (as was conducted), 2) destroying the compound from the air, or 3) simply further delay.
Many of us have repeatedly asked the question of authorities: “Why can’t we catch this man?” All of us were frustrated that for ten years he evaded capture. (But I always thought that we would eventually get him.)
His capture came about as a result of reforms that have recently been enacted in the federal government. In short, there is much closer collaboration and sharing of information among intelligence and military components of the federal government. That cooperation paid dividends that assisted in locating bin Laden’s hiding place.
And we now have a major source of new information that the intelligence community will analyze in very great detail. The trove of information – the captured hard drive and documents – recovered from his compound may eventually be even more important than his death.
As we examine this information we will, first, seek information about imminent threats, then the information will be parceled out among experts to do a very deep dive. To get this vast quantity of digital material is really good news.
We have already learned from these documents of al-Qaeda’s threats to the U.S. train network. They also increase our concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear materials.
V – Urgent Questions
Finally, a few words about urgent questions that arise from Osama bin Laden’s death;
The capture and removal of Osama bin Laden raises many urgent questions. Among them are the following:
I – U.S.-Pakistan Relationship
The debate today is over how hard to press Pakistan for answers.
For years, the U.S. has provided large amounts of aid to Pakistan in return for its assistance in hunting down al-Qaeda leaders, and the question has been whether Pakistan is a reliable partner for the U.S.
While Pakistan has cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism efforts, relations with Pakistan have been strained in recent years.
Some U.S. officials are openly skeptical about the Pakistanis’ commitment to countering terrorist activity within their borders.
Pakistan’s double dealing is hard to deny. It takes huge amounts of American aid, and “looks both ways” – helping the U.S. and helping the Taliban as well.
The discovery of bin Laden in a large compound adjacent to a Pakistani Army cantonment, just a two-hour drive from the Pakistani capital, and about a mile from Pakistan’s West Point — not in a remote area over which the government has limited control — requires answers from the Pakistani government about whether its intelligence service, military or other officials were aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts for some time, possibly even providing support.
The questions abound: For example, would he have chosen to live in Abbottabad unless he had some assurance of protection from Pakistan military and intelligence officials?
Our suspicions are growing. We need to know more about what officials in the Pakistani government knew — if anything — and whether the Pakistani government will be a better partner in identifying and apprehending terrorists in the future.
Having said that, this difficult and complex relationship with Pakistan must be managed, not dissolved, in order to advance our shared interests in countering terrorism and ending the war in Afghanistan.
My guess is that Pakistan will continue to demand that the U.S. stop encroachments upon its sovereignty. The death of Osama bin Laden may very well, in the short run, strengthen the extremists.
Pakistan has been less than a full partner, in our counterterrorism efforts and in Afghanistan. It has long been an internally divided government. Parts of its government are sympathetic to terrorism, parts are unwilling to act aggressively against it, parts wanting to contain and restrict al-Qaeda. Other parts are either incompetent or playing a double game with and against terrorism.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is central to the interests of both countries.
The United States needs cooperation with Pakistan in its fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. It provides a vital transit link for goods destined for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and its collapse with terrorist groups and nuclear weapons could be catastrophic. We also need Pakistan’s help in ending the war in Afghanistan.
It is already one of the most difficult bilateral relationships in the world. We can only manage it, we cannot resolve all the tensions. After many demands to cut aid to Pakistan, extensive efforts are now underway to ease tensions between the two countries. In the end, the U.S. will need to be committed to working with Pakistan despite the lingering questions.
Of this we can be sure: More tense times lie ahead in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Our focus must be on long-term interests, not short-term frustration. We need a healthy Pakistan that fights extremism and terror, and that means we should help democratic forces within Pakistan.
II – Afghanistan
Another question is Afghanistan.
The death of Osama bin Laden, the growing pressure from the polls and from Congress to shrink the U.S. footprint and expense in Afghanistan, have given new impetus to the question: When can we leave?
Osama bin Laden’s death creates new opportunities to begin real negotiations. The situation there is not good. The U.S. can clear and hold any area – for as long as we stay there. The key question in Afghanistan with respect to U.S. policy is sustainability; can we build and sustain the progress we make, at a price we are willing to pay.
In Afghanistan the Taliban have been pushed back, but they are not close to being defeated. Our gains are fragile and reversible. The Taliban are back on the offensive. The corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government is well-known. We’ve had our own share of mistakes and foul-ups.
The question now emerges as a result of Osama bin Laden’s death, is: Can a political deal be cut with the Taliban, which, from our view would require 1) no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, 2) maintaining progress that has been made in Afghanistan towards a more open society, and 3) bringing an end to the war. Will the Taliban be prepared to turn over al-Qaeda leaders as part of a deal?
We can get to that deal by more fighting. Or we can get to a deal by negotiating a political settlement.
Some will say the U.S. should pack up and leave, others will want to fight on to victory – however defined. Neither option is likely. But as Americans increasingly put Afghanistan in the rearview mirror the operative policy question is, at what pace do we withdraw and, as we withdraw combat forces, how can we continue to be helpful. There is renewed interest in what really are the U.S. interests in Afghanistan and what is possible to achieve – at a cost we are willing and able to pay.
Success in Afghanistan is not easy to define, but it includes establishing an Afghan government that, in time, can hold off the Taliban with a modest amount of American support and help.
III – Arab Spring
A third issue is whether and how recent events in the Middle East — the so-called Arab Spring — may counter the violent extremist agenda of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Al-Qaeda has been unsuccessful in its attempts to destabilize Arab governments and replace them with a Muslim Caliphate that stretches across the region. It has not been relevant to the revolutionary waves sweeping the Middle East.
Where al-Qaeda failed, peaceful protesters have succeeded through their grassroots uprisings in achieving regime change and dramatic political reforms.
What is erupting today in the Middle East is profoundly important – a quest for freedom, for personal dignity, for justice, for a better life. These demands are not going to fade away.
Power concentrated in the hands of a few will not secure stability indefinitely and invites change, sooner or later.
But these revolutions are not without risks. It is by no means clear that they will succeed. If they falter and fail to destroy repressive governments and to build a new democratic world, al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups could emerge again.
In any event, we are headed for a more uncertain, more unstable Arab world.
The focus of the Arab Spring presents us with a challenge far more difficult than al-Qaeda and terrorism. The future of the region (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen) is at stake. The operative questions are: Whether, when, and how to withdraw support from long-standing allies and whether, when, and how to support democratic interests.
Today the Arab and Muslim people have a chance, with real elections, constitutions, and political parties. If the people want and demand democratic change and accountable governments, no government will be able to resist.
The U.S. must seize the opportunity provided by the Arab Spring:
Welcome the changes toward self-determination and opportunity;
Oppose violence and repression;
Promote reform toward democracy; and
Support economic development for the nations moving toward democracy.
None of us can predict the outcome, but we of course can hope for, and support, more democratic regimes.