The popular opinion is that Osama bin Laden’s death has brought closure to the largest manhunt ever. In an earlier piece, I had pointed out that the death of the leader is one of six ways in which terrorist movements end. This is particularly true in the case of charismatic leaders—like LTTE’s Prabhakaran or the Khalistani movement’s Bhindranwale. However, to give the devil his due, Osama’s model of disseminating his ideology will certainly survive his death, and in some ways might actually be galvanized by it.
In the process of demonizing his acts of terror, we often tend to ignore that Osama was an exceptional leader. He combined rare qualities—he had participated in frontline operations, was a powerful communicator, had access to vast resources and contacts, and above all possessed a strategic mind that created the first truly federated model of terrorism. The franchise was Al Qaeda’s DNA, not a central template that everyone had to follow. Al Qaeda provided the resources, know-how and contacts, but the actual operations could be planned and executed by local terror groups ranging from Africa, the Middle East to the Far East. Thus Al Qaeda could lay down the general vision statement and strategy, leaving local outfits to structure these into specific operations.
This meant that Osama had managed to overcome a major handicap of terrorist groups - the ability to scale up and take the battle into the global theatre. Al Qaeda also managed to constantly confound its pursuers, surprising them each time with counter-intuitive moves. In 1993, for example, it struck the World Trade Center in New York. When security was subsequently heightened in the US, it struck two US embassies halfway across the world—in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam—in 1998. Again, when the US had just finished spending billions of dollars to harden their embassies worldwide, and expected Al Qaeda to strike at softer targets, it actually ratcheted its operations up a notch by attacking the US aircraft carrier Cole. And as the US responded by beginning to strengthen its assets across the world, Al Qaeda struck the mainland, in the signature attack that made it a household name.
No doubt, Osama’s death will be a setback to the organization, but several factors suggest that it will probably be a temporary one. Al Qaeda’s unique “franchisee” model ensures that it has a plentiful supply of leaders and local resources to carry on the cause. Osama himself was an ailing man, and his hunted existence over the last decade had brought him close to death several times. It is unlikely that his death would have been unanticipated and, therefore, wholly unplanned for. And unlike Saddam Hussein’s arrest, trial and execution as a common criminal, Osama’s fight unto death will be seen as the last act of a martyr, serving as a rallying call to the cause and perhaps even deifying him.
This incident has some strategic lessons and insights for India. First, a decade-long pursuit shows the single-minded resoluteness needed to weed out the strategic leadership of terrorist movements. The US has virtually rewritten the book on extra-territorial operations, cajoling, arm twisting or simply bombing any opposition to its core mission of getting Osama dead or alive. It followed multiple thrust lines of incentives, economic sanctions and punitive military action to force Osama and the Pakistani hand into the open.
Second, this reaffirms that we are dealing with a neighbour who practises guile as a national strategy. For Pakistan to brazenly claim that it had no knowledge of ”the most wanted man in the world” while he lived there—that too to the very country on whose largesse its economic and political establishment depends—shows just how much the rest of the world should take its statements at face value. After all, this isn’t some tribal hinterland we are talking about—it is a mainline city where Osama and his retinue were living under fortification.
Third, the US’ choice in taking out Osama using special forces units, or “feet on the ground”, rather than the safer missile strike option demonstrates the crucial role of intelligence in the operation. There is no way such a raid could have been considered viable without in-depth knowledge or local support from Pakistani assets. Successful operations that take several years are far fewer than the “false positives” that invariably get highlighted. We must realize that this achievement is probably the result of a series of manoeuvres and operations conducted by a community whose successes are seldom recognized but failures incessantly criticized. Finally, as pointed out by several world leaders, Osama’s death will certainly spur retaliatory strikes by loyalists, and this is a time to be cautious, not celebratory.
In the last decade, Osama has attracted popular loathing across the world, though nowhere more so than in the US. There will be the temptation to ascribe his demise to the defeat of “evil”. But we must appreciate the complex chain of preparation, infrastructure, apparatus, initiative, resources and, most importantly, political will, which went into the hunt for and liquidation of Osama bin Laden, and factor that in as we chase our own demons.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org