In action movies, the hero faces down the villains in a climactic battle. High noon. The bad guys bite the dust. The evil empire is left in ruins. Civilization is saved. The town is again safe.
Terrorism lends itself to this type of drama. It is a faceless phenomenon, so we look for master villains. In the 1970s, the media turned a second-rate Venezuelan-born killer, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos, into the “Jackal”—a name inspired by the 1973 movie, “Day of the Jackal.” The Palestinian Abu Nidal was the “master terrorist” of the 1980s.
Today's emblem of terror is Osama bin Laden. If bin Laden were a fictional villain created by Hollywood, his death or capture would end the reign of terror he has visited upon the world. Al-Qaida would fold its tent. The violent jihad that bin Laden has endeavored to inspire and direct would fade away. And, as a result, the world would return to quieter and less threatening times.
Unfortunately, the logical ending to an action movie about bin Laden is quite unlikely in the real world. Experience teaches that fugitives with support structures are hard to find, and that even if found and eliminated, their organizations usually survive.
Gen. John Pershing's pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, following the attack by his Villistas on Columbus, N.M., in 1916, ended in failure. U.S. Marines chased Nicaraguan nationalist Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua for six years, but he remained free when American forces withdrew from that nation in 1933.
French security forces spent 19 years tracking down Carlos, finally capturing him in 1994. Abu Nidal, who died in Baghdad in 2002, was the most wanted master terrorist of the 1980s, but was never apprehended. America's own Eric Rudolph, an alleged bomber, eluded capture in the hills of North Carolina for seven years. And, of course, we have yet to capture Taliban leader Mullah Omar or Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In few cases does the capture or death of a leader bring the demise of his organization. The capture of Peru's top guerrilla leader—the Shining Path's Abimael Guzman in 1992—was a severe blow to the organization, but it survived and is currently making a comeback. Turkey's capture in 1999 of Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdish PKK group, was also a major blow, but the organization survived.
Germany's Red Army Faction continued its operations for 20 years after the arrest in 1972 of its two leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Italy's Red Brigades founder Renato Curcio was arrested in 1976, but the brigades continued to carry out terrorist attacks for another six years, and after years of dormancy made a comeback in the 1990s.
The Basque separatist group ETA was created in 1959 and claimed its first victim in 1968. Since then, Spanish authorities have arrested its leaders, their successors, and their successors—but ETA terrorism continues. In the Middle East, Palestinian violence has continued despite the assassination of numerous Palestinian commanders over the years.
The more an enterprise draws from deep roots or has a broad base, the less the effect of the death of its leader. It is not the loss of a single leader that fells a movement, but the elimination of its leadership, operational capabilities, constituency and conditions.
It was not merely the death of Adolf Hitler that spelled the end of the Third Reich, but six years of war, the physical destruction of Germany, and the death of nearly 4.8 million German soldiers and 1.5 million German civilians, followed by 10 years of military occupation, and new political conditions.
Iraq fell to American forces without such a long and costly war. This is one reason why, even if Saddam Hussein is killed or captured, his supporters are unlikely to lay down their arms and start cheering U.S. occupation. The secular Hussein often sought to portray himself as a soldier in the worldwide jihad against the Great Satan America, attempting to draw support from al-Qaida and other jihadists. Like bin Laden, Hussein could remain a source of inspiration even in prison or in death—more popular among some than he was when in power.
Bin Laden is an effective organizer, but in today's more hostile operating environment al-Qaida has evolved into a more decentralized enterprise, depending on ferociously loyal, already dispersed veterans of Afghan wars and training camps. In fact, some officials believe that bin Laden has taken himself out of operations and remains only a figurehead. Bin Laden is also a well-connected fund-raiser, and his loss here could have some effect.
In the final analysis, bin Laden's capture or death will alter the trajectory of al-Qaida but not end its operations.
Al-Qaida itself is only one galaxy in a broad jihadist universe where connectivity is always murky. Al-Qaida's so-called affiliates from North Africa to Southeast Asia have sent recruits to al-Qaida training camps, have sought its support, and have carried out operations under al-Qaida's banner, but have kept their own organizational structures. Some are new. Others predate bin Laden's rise to prominence. Their jihad will continue.
And terrorism in its contemporary form almost certainly will persist. Bin Laden has contributed to development. The threat it poses will not end with him.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a special adviser on terrorism at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on December 3, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.