Tag Archives: al qaeda
The Death of Osama bin Laden

The Death of Osama bin Laden

Hearing of crowds gathering outside the White House, or chants of, “USA! USA!” at a ball game was that the primary beneficiary (or even impacted party) will be Americans themselves. The effect is largely symbolic: this is more a sort of closure for us rather than a strategic victory in the pursuit of the “Global War on Terror(ism)” (GWoT).

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There’s a message here about our willingness to act unilaterally (it’s not clear whether the government of Pakistan approved the action or we have a de jure violation of sovereignty)–though it’s not really as if that was in doubt. And interestingly, the apparently stable residence of UBL was not in a cave somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border but not far from Islamabad–this puts a fine point on the reliability of our Pakistani partners. One can imagine both good and bad outcomes for that relationship as a result of UBL’s killing, and unfortunately my confidence is wholeheartedly for the former.


A dear friend just sent me this  pic from the decisive moment–which I’d missed because I was writing this. Incidentally, they appear to be in the briefing room aside the Situation Room. No idea why they’re not in the sitroom proper…

But this will not be a “decapitation” by any stretch of the imagination; there are a number of affiliates outside of AQ Prime, and the likelihood that they’ve acted without any direction from the franchisee is extremely high. AQAP, AQIM, what’s left of AQI. And then there are those more loosely affiliated (at least nominally): al-Shabaab, LeT, Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Jihad (in Egypt), the IMU, etc. The diversity of the groups associated (even barely) with AQ Prime puts the geographic and ideological diversity of these groups in sharp relief and should make us carefully weigh the costs versus the benefits of how we engage them.

There was something interesting in Obama’s speech:

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.


The idea that the Obama administration was following this lead for months and pursued this degree of certainty before acting might temper old accusations of “dithering” regarding the delays in his 2009 Afghanistan strategy review (detailed in somewhat delightfully excruciating detail in Woodward’s Obama’s Wars). Or perhaps the “behind-the-scenes” insights offered by the book are a red herring. Or perhaps the duration reflects an effort to protect “sources and methods” as well as to “run this thread to ground”. One might hope there’ll be a Woodward accounting informed by another gang of self-serving (but on the whole honest, or at least mutually-balancing) insiders.

The elimination of UBL is yet another challenge to AQ sub-narratives (in this case, the inviolability of the figurehead). Al Zawahiri (now probably himself the “new #1 target) also took a hit when the government of Egypt was overthrown without resort to the methods prescribed by his prior affiliation, Islamic Jihad.

No doubt the GWoT has not been (nor will it be) “won”, but perhaps this symbolic event will serve as sufficient pretext for us to withdraw from some of the most costly and unattainable aspects of our engagement in Afghanistan.

Also, on the question of the reliability of our Pakistani partners, Steve Coll asks:

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests… that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose?

WaPo’s got an interesting set of graphics and text, particularly concerning the ritual preparation and burial of bin Laden’s body.


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Strategies of Failure

Strategies of Failure

Why would a terrorist claim credit for a failed (sometimes badly) attack?

The botched Times Square plot; Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban”, TTP) claims responsibility.


The Christmas Day “underwear bomber” attempt; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claims responsibility.

The air cargo/toner cartridges attempt; again, AQAP claims responsibility.

Reuters / Hyungwon Kang

Tactical failures might be seen to have some strategic success when the target or its protectors react in ways that are costly and ultimately futile. In a “bleeding” strategy, they might, in essence, be bleeding themselves.

Al Qaeda had historically tended not to to claim responsibility for even successful attacks (most notably the East Africa embassy bombings). And certainly never for failed attacks or foiled plots (Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, the 2006 transatlantic air plot–which was, incidentally, the seminal event that led to us checking constrained volumes of shampoo and mouthwash in Ziploc bags); all these have been linked to AQ.


Some insight might be gleaned from Usama bin Laden (UBL) himself, in claiming that our response to minor financial and physical efforts on the part of terrorists may cost millions, even billions. A particularly literal reading of asymmetric warfare:

…for example, al-Qaida spent $500 000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost – according to the lowest estimate – more than 500 billion dollars. Meaning that every dollar of al-Qaida defeated a million dollars by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.

As for the size of the economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars.

And possibly, a lesson on measuring the means and goals of our reactions:

All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

Ultimately, the Times Square attempt, the Christmas Day bomb attempt, etc., were foiled not by law enforcement or military measures, but by ordinary people–street vendors, even. UBL says, “Your security is in your own hands”; I suspect this isn’t what he means, but I’m really fond of Stephen Flynn’s formulation of taking one’s security into their own hands:

There were no federal air marshals aboard the aircraft. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, could not intercept it; it did not even know that the plane had been hijacked. Yet United 93 was stopped 140 miles from its likely destination—the U.S. Capitol or the White House—because of the actions of the passengers who stormed the cockpit… Americans should celebrate — and ponder — the reality that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.

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