The killing of terrorist icon Osama bin Laden is a moment of triumph, but it neither erases the global threat of terrorism nor necessarily foretells victory in the war in Afghanistan.
Other groups are rising to commit new acts of violence around the world, analysts told Stars and Stripes, while the terrorist leader’s death is unlikely to cool off a Taliban movement intent on regaining lost ground in Afghanistan.
In short, the immediate effect of taking out bin Laden will be limited — although its eventual effect on the war could turn out to be far-reaching.
“The death of Osama bin Laden does not end the war against al-Qaida, but it is a significant victory, and it may help conclude the war in Afghanistan,” John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Stars and Stripes on Monday. “Reconciliation negotiations with the Taliban demand that they renounce al-Qaida, renounce violence, and accept the terms of the Afghan constitution.
“Renouncing [al-Qaida] is easier if the organization is no longer effective — and [Sunday’s] actions will further decrease its effectiveness.”
Al-Qaida will still be around, but its true reach should be kept in perspective, said an Afghanistan scholar.
“I don’t see a huge change, because the threat is still there but it’s actually not a huge threat for the U.S. and Western countries,” said Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
But, he said, with bin Laden gone, the war may end earlier than otherwise because of potential U.S. willingness to engage the Taliban in a peace process: “Bin Laden was a huge embarrassment, and his death makes it much easier for the U.S. to negotiate over withdrawal.”
Regardless of longer term prospects, in the coming fighting season, American and allied troops still face the prospect of Taliban fighters determined to show the Afghan populace and the world they are a force to be reckoned with.
“Nothing on the ground will change,” Dorronsoro said. “There will still be a Taliban resurgence this spring.”
The Taliban will be back because they aren’t fighting for bin Laden, wrote analyst Maha Azzam on the website of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
“The Taliban are engaged in what they perceive as a time-honored Afghani war against foreign occupation, which will continue to progress according to its own dynamic,” Azzam wrote.
"While it was al-Qaida that brought the U.S. and its allies to Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago, it is the Taliban that will likely keep them there for the foreseeable future even as the calls for a robust troop withdrawal grow louder at home.”
However, what bin Laden’s death could represent is the likely end to al-Qaida as an organization capable launching spectacular attacks on its own without the assistance of other like-minded groups.
“They’ve been a declining asset for some time, but they still have the capacity to work with other groups,” said Nigel Inkster, a terrorism expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and former operative with the British Secret intelligence Service. “Bin Laden was a kind of rallying point for the international jihadist cause and was powerful symbolic figure. It’s difficult to envisage anyone filling his shoes.”
Many analysts say Ayman al Zawahiri is the most likely candidate to fill al-Qaida’s leadership vacuum, though there are doubts about his capacity to return the group to its once central place in the global jihadist movement.
Instead, what has emerged in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks is the rise of al-Qaida-inspired or -affiliated groups pursuing causes of their own. In some cases, those groups see the West as its enemy. Other groups have more local concerns, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or an associate group in Africa’s Maghreb region.
“In many ways, bin Laden’s death comes at a time when he had become increasingly sidelined in the wider political arena in the Middle East,” Azzam wrote. “Nonetheless, he leaves a legacy of a loose network of fringe radicals intent on using terrorism with no objective other than to terrorize simply as a way of saying that they are there and that they object to what they see in the wider political arena.”
It’s been years since the threat could be pinned on a single group, said James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation national security expert.
“There have been 38 terrorist plots aimed at the U.S. since 9/11 [that were] foiled,” he said. “Al-Qaida central hasn’t been involved with more than a very few of them.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Nancy Montgomery and Kevin Baron contributed to this report.