One less bin Laden walks the earth. Following the usual tactic of denying drone attacks until they kill someone newsworthy, intelligence officials leaked that Osama’s son Saad bin Laden was probably killed in Pakistan earlier this year. A bit player in al-Qaeda, his death will have no impact.
Now can the same be said for his father?
President Obama’s self-stated victory in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda,” a goal that doesn’t clarify whether Osama bin Laden must be killed. Obama has stated his intent to bestow justice upon bin Laden for 9/11. While the spectacle would psychologically boost the American public, al-Qaeda has a high chance of surviving without him. He’s likely designing it to do just that.
But al-Qaeda is one of many terrorist groups that construct themselves to sustain inevitable assassinations in the future. Dozens of examples can be culled from the 1950’s through the 80’s, but the 1990’s and beyond will suffice to demonstrate that targeted assassinations have a deep history of tactical success and strategic failure.
In 1992, Israeli helicopters destroyed the motorcade of Abbas al-Musawi, the leader of Hezbollah at the time. Weeks later Hezbollah chose its new leader, a young Hassan Nasrallah, who would expel Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000 and 2006. Nasrallah’s deputy Imad Mughniyah was then killed in 2008. Both Israel and Syria were blamed for the assassination, an inconsequentiality. Hezbollah, by Israel’s own admission, is rapidly strengthening.
A parallel story was written with blood in the Palestinian territories. Hamas lost both of its co-founders in 2004 when Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his replacement, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, a month later. The killings were widely condemned in the Arab world and Western states like the UK, but America and Israel defended the killings. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called Yassin “the Palestinian bin Laden.”
Two years later Hamas emerged victorious in the Palestinian legislative election and subsequently overthrew Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Though Israel managed to kill additional high-ranking officials during the Gaza war, Hamas shows no signs of military weakness. Again, Israel fears that Hamas is more entrenched than ever before.
Hezbollah and Hamas have proven that leaders can be replaced and that targeted assassinations empower insurgencies, not end them.
After a while the cycle becomes nauseating. Fathi Shaqaqi, head of Palestine Islamic Jihad, was killed in 1995; Islamic Jihad continues to operate. Abu Ali Mustafa, Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was supposedly killed by Israeli agents in July of 2000; the PFLP continues to operate. Jamal Abu Samhadana, founder of the Popular Resistance Committee, was killed in 2006; PRC continues to operate.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda have exhibited the same resilience.
Aden Hashi Farah, the alleged military chief of al-Qaeda, was killed in 2001 by a US drone, but his death had negligible effects. Aden Hashi Farah, head al-Qaeda in Somalia and leader of al-Shabab, was killed in 2008 by a US drone; al-Shabab surged and now controls most of Mogadishu. The Taliban lost their senior military commander, Mullah Dadullah, when American forces raided his house and killed him in 2007.
The Taliban exploded the following year and forced President Obama to commit new troops before he reviewed the war.
Given the survival of all these groups, Al-Qaeda isn’t likely to crumble upon bin Laden’s execution. This isn’t Sauron and Mordor. Like most other Islamic militant groups, Al-Qaeda is only guided by bin Laden, not fueled. Al-Qaeda powers itself on the universal energy of all militants - poverty, oppression, and imperialism. Assassinations do absolutely nothing to improve these conditions.
Terrorism has been made into its own cause to conceal how little America has improved the well being of the oppressed. America exports the most humanitarian aid on earth, but this aid pales in comparison to its military expenditures. For instance, 7$ billion in economic aid was just allocated to Pakistan over the next five years, while military operations in Afghanistan are over 200$ billion and counting.
The war would be better off if these figures were balanced out.
Assassination is barely counterinsurgency and rarely terminates a terrorist organization. Ideologies are only inflamed. The real cause of terrorism is political, economic, and social inequality. A Palestinian or Kashmiri state, or less absolute relations with Israel, would inflict far greater damage to al-Qaeda than killing bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Global jihad is self-sustaining. Its regenerating heads are mirages, lures down an endless path of waste and violence.
Osama bin Laden would rather die than see Third World countries improve. America can't fall for the trap.