The hunt is on. With the Taliban routed, the war on terror now turns to the effort to bring back Osama bin Laden—dead or alive. While it's a natural impulse to send out the posse, maybe we shouldn't try too hard. Turning the next phase of this conflict into the most expensive manhunt in history might well divert attention and needed resources from what should be the war's central aim: to defeat Al Qaeda before it mounts an attack with a weapon of mass destruction. We can't afford to waste time: The likelihood of such an attack will only grow over the coming months.
Aside from the compelling emotional reasons for wanting to go after Bin Laden, there is also the practical matter of the impact his capture or death might have on Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda is truly dependent upon his leadership, eliminating Bin Laden might collapse the network, severing head from hands in a way that leaves Al Qaeda operatives dangling helplessly. But from everything we know of Al Qaeda, the group is a loosely organized, widely dispersed network without a strong central "leadership node." If this is true, then getting Bin Laden may do little to impede Al Qaeda's efforts to use whatever weapons of mass destruction it might acquire. As numerous organizational studies have shown, hierarchies can be crippled by the loss of as little as 5% of their leadership, while less top-down networks can sustain more than 10 times that loss rate and keep functioning.
If Al Qaeda is composed of semi-autonomous cells and nodes, spread around some dozens of countries worldwide, then whichever ones have been working to develop or buy poisons, bugs or nukes will presumably keep on doing what they have been doing. And should they actually succeed, there would no doubt be little more than general guidance from Bin Laden about their use. Most of the operational details would likely be left to the discretion of the various network members. In business terms, Bin Laden's role in a networked Al Qaeda would primarily be to maintain "topsight" regarding the overall course of the terror war—not to over-control his distributed nodes.
For this reason, the loss of Bin Laden, far from crippling a networked Al Qaeda, might actually make it much harder to locate the rest of his followers. What would happen if Bin Laden is just left out there—wherever "there" ultimately is? His minions will almost certainly make efforts, however furtive, to contact him from time to time—likely using either couriers or electronic means. This would increase the chances of intercepting some messages, gleaning vitally needed intelligence.
The idea of leaving Bin Laden out there should be applied to lesser members of the network as well, which could increase opportunities for connecting more of the dots of the network structure. This strategy is standard practice both in counterespionage and in organized-crime investigations. In these realms, the Mafia don, say, is often the last to be captured, because of the intelligence payoff that comes from monitoring communications coming his way. Simply put, if our objective is stopping the Al Qaeda network from acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction, then—much as the mind recoils—Bin Laden becomes more valuable alive and free than dead.
To be sure, the push to capture or kill Bin Laden will remain high. The American need for a clearly defined antagonist—see any Hollywood film plot—coupled with intelligence assessments built on a foundation of "leadership profiles," guarantees this. So do the president's repeated calls for his capture or death, which have set the bar of political expectations quite high. And, after all, there is some chance that Bin Laden has actually been orchestrating most of Al Qaeda's actions. Even if he is—perhaps especially if he is—we should assume that he is at least smart enough to have planned in advance for his own capture or demise.
Because the possibility that a secret military trial and swift execution would deny him a bully pulpit from which to tell his side of the story, Bin Laden has most likely made plans to guarantee that, if cornered, he will die rather than be captured. If he has made such preparations, our overall war aim of denying terrorists weapons of mass destruction may already be undermined. He could easily have moved operators and money out across a global grid, with much of this being done even before 9/11. His "sleepers" would no doubt also have been instructed on the general plan of campaign, with set orders about what to do in case of his death or capture. This latter point echoes standing orders that all U.S. missile submarine skippers have, should they lose contact with home for a specific period. In this case, an envelope is opened, the target list is read and the attack proceeds.
Consider what little we can say with certainty that we know about Bin Laden: He is a man who celebrates death, and he is a meticulous planner. Putting these two facts together, can we doubt that he has thought strategically about his own demise? The likely nature of Bin Laden's personal last rites merits careful consideration, as they would probably consist of some sort of bloody self-immolation that killed those closing in on him. Perhaps this would consist of high explosives, or some kind of big, dirty bomb. Either way, a team trying to capture him would, in effect, be trying to defuse a living unexploded device.
It is also possible that Bin Laden might try something even more clever. He could wander off by himself, say to a remote cave, then detonate an explosive that would bury him under a mountain of debris. This way, the manhunt would go on forever, and his legend would only grow, like a terrorist version of 1970s skyjacker D.B. Cooper, who parachuted from a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money strapped to his waist and disappeared. Meanwhile, resources expended in the hunt for Bin Laden would take away from efforts to roll up the rest of the network, giving his distributed nodes and cells the time and chance they would need for their dark, grand enterprise—which would still be guided by his dead hand.
It is folly to believe that Bin Laden has not carefully planned his personal endgame. It is folly to believe that he would have begun this terror war with no strategic vision of how he might end it, using the ultimate weapons to achieve the ultimate victory—even after his own death. For these reasons, it may be the ultimate folly on our part to concentrate so much on capturing or killing him while the rest of Al Qaeda feverishly pursues the weapons of mass destruction that could prove the instrument of our defeat. If instead we should let him run free and beef up our worldwide efforts against Al Qaeda, we may learn enough to destroy this network before it can pose a mortal threat to us.
John Arquilla is co-editor of the just-published Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 30, 2001. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.