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The fall of the Soviet Union presented a major strategic challenge to the United States. Accustomed to preparing for the singular problem posed by the Soviet Union, the United States suddenly had to grapple with asymmetrical, transnational, and decentralized threats. Osama bin Laden’s death poses a similar test for Washington. The disappearance of this central leader will fragment terrorist groups and destabilize their ranks, producing instability that may spur further violence against U.S. interests. Washington’s response to bin Laden’s death will define how the United States will adjust to this new reality -- whether it will sustain its war against terrorist networks, and, if so, which tools it will use to succeed.
Just as the Soviet Union represented an easily identifiable symbol and threat for the United States during the Cold War, bin Laden became a focal point for U.S. counterterrorism strategy after 9/11. Although he attempted to ensure that al Qaeda would transcend him, his charisma and popularity made him the organization’s center of gravity -- offering ideological leadership as well as operational guidance. His clout allowed al Qaeda to cast itself as the vanguard jihadist group, drawing previously local and regional struggles under its global umbrella and inducing such militants to reorient their struggles toward the United States and its allies.
Without bin Laden, these local and regional groups will likely splinter. This may produce something of a Wild West climate, in which groups claiming to operate under al Qaeda’s banner launch attacks without having any formal connection to or approval from al Qaeda’s leadership. Franchises such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may bypass the central organization and form independent ties. These organizations may also turn away from global jihad and refocus on their original local missions.
Al Qaeda, in other words, may crumble as a result of bin Laden’s death. Yet the organization and other jihadi groups could also use this moment as an opportunity to remake themselves. The decentralization of Islamist terrorism will amplify the already existing challenges facing U.S. counterterrorism policy, especially given the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasingly scarce resources.
These constraints will impact the U.S. government’s two traditional counterterrorism approaches: territorial control and partnership with other nations. The first approach is exemplified by U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. control of territory allowed its forces to target terrorists directly. The second involves developing long-term strategic partnerships with key countries through security assistance, intelligence cooperation, and joint operations against terrorist networks. Bin Laden’s death will present challenges to both.
U.S. counterterrorism forces, such as Joint Special Operations Command, honed their skills in environments where the United States had full territorial control and enjoyed the backing of conventional troops. Although territorial control eventually succeeded in pacifying Iraq, the approach has fared less well in Afghanistan, where bin Laden’s death is sure to increase volatility. Frustration over the lack of progress in Afghanistan and budget concerns at home have also diminished the U.S. public’s appetite for such large-scale military campaigns. Bin Laden’s demise has already sparked calls for the United States to declare “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan and bring its troops home.
America’s alternate approach to counterterrorism -- cooperation with other countries -- is also under strain. A string of alliances developed by the United States after 9/11 are currently being threatened from many angles. The first is the Arab Spring. Opposition movements across the Middle East have weakened or overthrown autocrats, such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, with close security ties to the United States. Although it remains to be seen how the relations with Washington will change, the Arab regimes are now focused on domestic stability, not fighting terrorism. This will make it harder for United States to maintain and improve its security partnerships.
A strategy of building alliances to combat terrorist networks can also perpetuate terrorism. U.S. funds given to states so that they can mount significant anti-terror efforts often have the unintended affect of encouraging those states to avoid eliminating their targets. For example, the United States has offered significant support to Yemen in the hope of encouraging it to wage a serious campaign against AQAP. Although Sanaa may want to eliminate the violent group, success would most certainly spell a reduction in U.S. military aid -- and thus Yemen has avoided truly effective action against AQAP. Governments receiving counterterrorism aid may also divert that aid to other sectors, as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted in 2009 to having done during his tenure (he redirected it to defense against India). Sometimes, states redistribute these funds to improve welfare or promote economic development, which benefits the United States by addressing underlying problems that foster radicalization. Yet in many other cases, as in Pakistan, nations divert U.S. funds to address external threats or internal disputes. Such use of U.S. assistance can often deepen the very tension and repression that Washington seeks to reverse, hurting America’s image and lending support to al Qaeda’s argument that the United States backs repressive regimes.
All this seems to leave the United States with few options to counter the evolving threat of global jihad effectively. Given how unpopular further U.S. ground deployments would be, Washington will need to depend on unreliable alliances to combat terrorist networks. The question is how to minimize the pitfalls of depending on such partnerships.
The United States should begin by creating a systematic process to characterize the risks and rewards of a given relationship. Policymakers currently lack such a framework, which should include careful oversight of how U.S. counterterrorism aid is spent by allies, as well as simultaneous insistence on and support for political and economic reforms that improve accountability. In that sense, U.S. officials should implement President Ronald Reagan’s famous “trust but verify” system first applied to arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, maintaining the political will to punish recipient countries that abuse U.S. assistance by altering allocations or reducing aid.
Yet given the limitations and risks, United States should not rely solely on partnerships and aid to reduce the threat of terrorism. It must augment such alliances by accessing and exploiting sub-state networks in the struggle against terrorism and radicalization. These networks might include political parties, civil society groups, and nongovernmental organizations around the world, whose assistance and influence may help compensate for overreliance on state-to-state relationships. This will require building a culturally conscious military and intelligence community, capable of operating among these networks abroad. Improved clandestine ability will increase the flow of intelligence, allowing policymakers to deploy a greater number of strategies in combating specific threats.
In the post–bin Laden world, the United States must develop an even more precise and nuanced understanding of how terrorists work. Without reevaluating its existing counterterrorism alliances and developing a system to gauge the viability of new partnerships as well, Washington will find it difficult to protect the U.S. homeland from future attacks.