The Implications Of Osama Bin Laden’s Death For Counter Terrorism Over The Longer Term Part 2

Special Forces fighting terrorismIn my previous article, Beyond Bin Laden, we began our two-part series by examining the events surrounding the death of the former al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. We also examined bin Laden’s actual role and influence within al-Qaeda in the period preceding his death, the leadership structure of al-Qaeda and the possibility of retribution in the wake of bin Laden’s death. In this issue, we continue our series by looking at the possible future direction of al-Qaeda, the impact of bin Laden’s death on the relations between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan and some possible US strategies for counter-terrorism.

Lone Wolf Operative And Self-Radicalisation

It is likely that post-bin Laden’s death, we will see al-Qaeda continue to gravitate towards the development of an international jihadist organisation with reduced central influence and more concentrated efforts on the individualisation of the movement. This will result in lethal, personalised and uncoordinated attacks, as seen in recent times with an increase in attacks from lone wolf operatives and home-grown terrorists. These groups and individuals have had no formal association with higher headquarters and are solely committing their actions based on ideology which is readily available through the media and Internet.

Groups or individuals that radicalise autonomously, without any external contact, assistance or direction, pose very different challenges to investigators and authorities. The main distinction between this category of terrorists and others is the lack of traceable communications, connections to known persons of interest or travel for training that could possibly be identified through their links to other known groups, members and locations.

A group or lone individual appearing from nowhere to launch a terrorist attack would be almost impossible to detect by security forces due to their lack of outside contact and high degree of operational security. However, a large problem faced by an autonomous terrorist is the acquiring of the necessary skills and equipment to conduct a successful attack.

The authors of a NYPD report, Radicalisation In The West: The Home-grown Threat, analysed the activities of terrorist plotters, including a large group of jihadists in Australia that were apprehended during Operation Pendennis. The report outlines a four-stage model to explain the domestic radicalisation process where individuals are not recruited from above but usually begin the self-radicalisation process alone, then gravitate towards like-minded individuals, form clusters and self-designate themselves as holy warriors. The report goes on to say,  “While the threat from overseas remains, terrorist attacks or thwarted plots against cities in Europe, Australia and Canada since 2001 fit a different paradigm. Rather than being directed from al-Qaeda abroad, these plots have been conceptualised and planned by ‘unremarkable’ local residents/citizens who sought to attack their country of residence, utilising al-Qaeda as their inspiration and reference point.”

This report indicates al-Qaeda was likely reappraising its strategy to provide an updated format from which to attempt attacks and serve as a reminder of the continuing appeal of their jihadist ideology and adaptability, preceding bin Laden’s assassination.

US/ Pakistan Relations And Afghanistan

The al-Qaeda core, revived after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001 and its loss of a safe haven in Afghanistan, eventually became more entrenched in parts of Pakistan. The US raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistani territory highlighted the problematic nature of the intelligence relationship between the US and Pakistan. The US did not request permission for, or provide notice of, the attack which given the sensitivity of Pakistanis to perceived indignities, could have been foreseen as inflicting serious damage on their bilateral relations. Bin Laden’s death may impact US and Pakistan relations in a multitude of ways, such as magnifying the existing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

There is existing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that will only be exacerbated by the newly-introduced, Pakistan Foreign Aid Accountability Act designed to prohibit future assistance to Pakistan if the country is found to have been complicit in hiding bin Laden and that he had been living in central Pakistan for some time. The report for Congress indicates that there is no evidence suggesting Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts. However, both their military and intelligence services are now under pressure to explain how bin Laden could reside inside Pakistan territory, in the vicinity of a military academy, for so long.

Whether it was incompetence or complicity, the US has no better option but to continue and, hopefully, improve, its relationship with Pakistan. The US needs Pakistani support to transit supplies to troops in Afghanistan and to achieve a favourable, regional environment for an eventual peace settlement there. Pakistan remains of importance to the US, especially in light of their troop drawdown from Afghanistan if the security situation worsens.

US Strategies For Counter-terrorism

David Rittgers, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, suggests that bin Laden’s death should be viewed as a teachable moment for how the US ought to be carrying out its counter-terrorism policy moving forward. This is a view widely accepted, referring to utilising targeted killing as an essential component of the fight against al-Qaeda. Much public debate has focussed on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to carry out targeted killings and whether the end should justify the means. International counter-terrorism is primarily an intelligence campaign, and the application of select lethal force could be more effective than the deployment of front line troops as third world constabulary. A scalpel, not a sledgehammer, should be our primary counter-terrorism tool.

The US has signalled an ongoing military intelligence campaign against international terrorists with the nomination of General David Petraeus to take the helm at the Central Intelligence Agency. The raid on bin Laden’s compound demonstrated a new emphasis by the US to combine intelligence assets with special forces soldiers during targeted killing, surgical operations as a counter-strategy to international terrorism.

Fighting the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan should remain at the centre of US counter-terrorism policy to remove their perceived secure haven.  The risk for Zawahiri is not just to his personal safety but to al-Qaeda’s long-term health. The death of bin Laden was a huge blow to al-Qaeda central. Losing the new leader in short succession would send a message that the organization is near collapse. The al-Qaeda core in Pakistan has been under siege from drone strikes for several years now, curtailing its ability to communicate and plan operations.

The US has made great strides in tactical counter-terrorism in recent times, removing individual terrorists, disrupting cells, and thwarting conspiracies. At the strategic level, however, we continue to see a strong flow of new recruits into many of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. This needs to be addressed, to diminish the drivers of violent extremism, and demonstrably reduce the effectiveness of terrorist propaganda with a subsequent reduction of recruits.


While the strategic threat from al-Qaeda will decline further, the motivation for revenge attacks by groups and individuals in the West will increase. Lone terrorists and home-grown cells, in particular, are likely to self-radicalise and seek to avenge bin Laden with even less discriminate killings. al-Qaeda’s affiliates throughout the Middle East will want to demonstrate their allegiance to the new leadership by conducting attacks in the name of retribution. It is likely that Pakistan will suffer the greatest carnage as multiple, local jihadi groups will seek to take revenge against the Pakistani state and its citizens for bin Laden’s death on Pakistani territory.

The need to preserve the broader al-Qaeda network will confound the challenges of bin Laden’s successor. Zawahiri does not have bin-Laden’s charisma and, in the past, his leadership has been more polemical and divisive. Affiliates may be more reluctant to follow him, particularly if al–Qaeda’s core fundraising efforts suffer after bin Laden’s death and the drone campaign makes it difficult for Zawahiri to communicate regularly with affiliate leaders.  The US should continue an aggressive target killing campaign utilising drone strikes and the military intelligence relationship and inter-agency cooperation further developed in the Abbottabad raid.

Short and long term security and foreign policy considerations within the US are to be reassessed with bin Laden’s death and are likely to be shaped by the impact his death has on al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Possible questions raised include, to what extent will bin Laden’s death trigger a reassessment of U.S. resources committed to countering violent extremist organisations, and which US government agencies will assume the balance of responsibilities.

US counter-terrorism policy must incorporate the Arab spring into its strategic planning; the policy’s public diplomacy efforts should relentlessly highlight al-Qaeda’s criticisms of democracy. The message should be distributed by television and radio but, more importantly, across the Internet to reach young men, in particular, to emphasize the argument that reform can come through peaceful change. Perhaps a soft-hand approach needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism strategies at home — such as better social services for immigrant communities and courtesy calls to local religious leaders to hear their concerns and reassure them. Such policies are vital counter-terrorism strategies.

Kenneth Baker
Kenneth Baker is a Masters student at Macquarie University’s Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter–Terrorism (PICT)