Bin Laden's Group Will Survive Him


Sep 25, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on September 25, 2001.

Every television station and newspaper declares Osama bin Laden to be America's "Public Enemy Number One." The United States is demanding the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to surrender bin Laden or face dire consequences. And the Pentagon is exploring a range of military options and may, as it did in 1998, try to kill him with a cruise missile strike.

Bin Laden's death or imprisonment would be necessary, but not sufficient, to eradicate the terrorist network he created. His personal charisma and wealth were essential to forming the organization he leads, Al-Qaida (Arabic for "the Base"), and bringing radicals around the world together. Unfortunately, the group he spawned and the network he has woven are now strong and robust.

Like a successful businessman, he has created institutions that can survive him. As a result, the struggle against this threat will not end when bin Laden is dead or in prison. Rather, the United States must both remove bin Laden and uproot the broader network he has created.

At times, striking down a leader is enough to end a threat. The threat from Iraq would greatly abate with the death of Saddam Hussein. Much of Baghdad's aggressive and brutal policies are linked to his grandiose ambitions and aggressive practices, and it is probable that a successor would be less bellicose and more cautious. Moreover, in contrast to bin Laden, Saddam has not created structures of power that appear likely to last if he dies.

To be clear, bin Laden's removal is a key element of any campaign against the vast terrorist network he has spawned. The magnitude of his crimes demand that he personally pay a price. Moreover, his removal probably would impair the operations of Al-Qaida. Any successor to bin Laden might prove less inspiring, reducing the fervor of his movement. Leadership rivalries are common in terrorist groups, and his passing would almost certainly lead to at least squabbles and perhaps even a bloodbath among his followers.

Bin Laden, however, has other accomplishments that will live on after him. His greatest skill may be his organizational ability.

Al-Qaida often bungled its early operations, such as the 1993 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center. But over time, it grew more lethal. The organization now uses a sophisticated cell structure to ensure operational security. Its operatives are patient, willing to deploy many years in advance of a strike. They distribute training manuals to help groups and individuals, and they employ a range of fronts to raise funds throughout the Muslim and Western world.

Perhaps even more important, bin Laden has brought together like-minded radical groups, creating synergies among them. Al-Qaida cooperates with radicals in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Kashmir, Chechnya, Pakistan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and dozens of other countries. Al-Qaida helps arm, organize and train these groups in their struggles against their respective governments, while they in turn give it a global reach that enables Al-Qaida operatives to acquire official documents, use safe houses or otherwise pass from country to country.

In addition, bin Laden has helped transform groups that were once essentially local in outlook to share his anti-U.S. and international focus.

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, for example, focused its operations against the Egyptian government in the early 1990s. Today, it shares bin Laden's broader pan-Islamic and anti-American agenda. With bin Laden's encouragement, the Jihad's leaders have also mended fences with their former rivals, the Islamic Group, to join in a common fight against the United States and the West.

Because of his success in creating a semi-autonomous terrorist network that spans the globe, meeting the challenge bin Laden poses will require striking at his network simultaneously—not just in Afghanistan, but in all the countries in which it operates. If we attack it piecemeal, we risk having operatives simply flee from one locale to another, where they will rebuild and resume their activities.

Similarly, killing bin Laden without destroying the rest of the network will only create a martyr, inspiring his minions to lash out at us.

As the Bush administration has properly stressed, even such a simultaneous strike may not wipe out every piece of the network. But it would do tremendous damage, destroying the ability of the terrorists to work together, eliminating key assets and driving the remainder underground. In the short term, this will make it difficult for them to stage new terrorist attacks—at least of the scope and sophistication of those that occurred Sept. 11. In the long-term, it will make them more vulnerable to arrests, extraditions and direct attacks and discourage new recruits from joining the movement.

Such a simultaneous assault, however, depends as much on intelligence and diplomacy as it does on military operations.

Stopping Al-Qaida in Afghanistan will probably require a military solution. However, there are dozens of other countries—in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and North America—in which Al-Qaida and its allies operate. The United States will need to persuade those countries, or coerce them, to help eradicate the Al-Qaida presence on their soil.

The United States also will have to make a full-court intelligence press, both in terms of intelligence gathering and covert action, to go after Al-Qaida personnel and assets around the world. Even countries that have not suffered an attack by Al-Qaida must recognize that bin Laden's network poses a threat to their security and that, in any event, a refusal to cooperate will greatly harm their relations with Washington. Military strikes will at times have to take a back seat to these joint intelligence operations with allies.

Finally, the United States must recognize that such a war will take years to succeed. Even if initial efforts are successful and destroy much of the global network in one fell swoop, the survivors will go underground and wait for opportunities to rebuild the network and strike back. The endemic poverty of the region, disruptive social change, and local frustrations with the autocratic political systems of the Arab world generate large numbers of disaffected young Arabs who will still join the Al-Qaida network.

There will still be individual attacks, and Americans may still die. Yet we can reduce the pace and scale of attacks on the United States as terrorists are hounded in every allied country while military strikes in the few areas of the globe where friendly governments cannot reach. This is inevitable, and the only solution is to be prepared to keep the pressure on for years.

This battle will not end with a victory parade. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies can win the war on terrorism. The victory will not be by a formal surrender of Al-Qaida members and their associates but by a growing silence and lack of violence.

Daniel L. Byman, former CIA Persian Gulf political analyst, is research director for RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Policy. Kenneth M. Pollack, former CIA Persian Gulf military analyst, is a senior fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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