On Sunday, Osama bin Laden met a fitting if belated demise, shot by a U.S. special forces team in an operation inside Pakistan. The killing of bin Laden was a just and necessary act that should be met with somber satisfaction but not exaltation. His death has global implications that are both subtle and complex -- and perhaps will make life more complicated for U.S. policymakers in combating the threat of global terror groups.
There is no reason to expect the Islamist terrorist threat to diminish as a result of his death. Bin Laden had long since detached himself from direct tactical control of global terrorist conspiracies conducted under the banner of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization he established in the 1990s. He was intimately involved in the planning and direction of al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001. But after the assault on his stronghold in Afghanistan and his flight into Pakistan in late 2001, it became clear to him that his survival depended on limiting his contact with the outside world to the barest minimum. Planning and direction of al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plots, such as the bombing of the London Underground in July 2005 and the 2006 plot against U.S.-bound flights from London, were delegated to a succession of operational commanders, none of whom survived very long. Bin Laden himself became known only as a disembodied voice in an audiotape or a grainy image on the occasional video.
Even in this reduced role, however, bin Laden was a malignant, animating spirit in dozens of smaller-scale terrorist plots and attacks -- and this is a role he can play in death as well. Al Qaeda has metastasized into an inchoate decentralized movement of Islamist terrorists and cells around the world.
At the same time, the removal of bin Laden from the terrorism equation may complicate U.S. global counterterrorism operations. Perceptions matter in politics, at home and internationally. Many of the most important features of an effective counterterrorism program -- recruitment of human agents, unilateral use of deadly force with the risk of collateral damage, and the apprehension, interrogation, and, sometimes, rendition of suspects -- are distasteful, politically and legally risky, and unpopular...