The recent killing of Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyah, after a quarter-century of pursuit, was met by a mixture of applause and shrugs. It also begged a bigger question: How important is it to take out key terrorists — such as Osama bin Laden?
Indeed, perhaps spurred on by failure, a sense that capturing or killing bin Laden is unimportant appears to be taking hold in influential quarters. In a recent article in the New Yorker, former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin reported the U.S. "is not particularly looking for him." And the FBI's intelligence chief, Wayne Murphy, wondered "if the benefits of getting bin Laden balance out," confessing that he doesn't "know if it buys us anything." Last year, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker questioned whether capturing or killing bin Laden is "all that important, frankly," while renowned counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman argued that "we need to drop our preoccupation with" him.
Though the hunt for bin Laden continues, as evidenced by the recent reported killing of Abu Laith al-Libi, energy for the search is likely dissipating for several valid reasons: frustration with not capturing bin Laden and a concomitant desire to play down the that failure; difficult tradeoffs in dealing with precariously-balanced Pakistani and Afghan regimes; and our success in undermining bin Laden and disrupting al Qaeda even without getting to him. Few contest that capturing or killing bin Laden is important; many simply view the objective as not worth prioritizing it at the expense of other interests.
But the truth is that killing or capturing bin Laden remains a vital national and, indeed, international priority. Not only is it important — it is worth devoting significant resources and making major tradeoffs to do so.
No doubt there will be considerable costs in earnestly working to get to bin Laden. These include but are not limited to: the potential for greater friction with Pakistan due to the increased pressure that will have to be applied; the possibility of further radicalization in the tribal areas or in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region generally; the opportunity costs of not using appropriate U.S. and allied resources elsewhere; and, in the event of capture, the awkwardness of a trial, or, in the event of his death, martyrdom. But while these costs are very real and must be acknowledged, they are counterbalanced and, ultimately, outweighed by the following reasons:
Future deterrence: Bin Laden's fate is inextricably tied to the credibility of the U.S. deterrent against future terrorist attacks. It is vital that the United States show that those who attack us will be punished. This is not to say such a deterrent is sufficient, but it is certainly necessary. So long as bin Laden eludes American and international punishment, especially given his status as a symbol of the entire global jihadi movement, the credibility of the U.S. threat to retaliate against those who attack us is seriously weakened.
Some might say such worries are overwrought, that terrorists know that if they strike us they will pay, but the proof is in the pudding. Al Qaeda itself has repeatedly said that part of its rationale for the September 11, 2001, attacks was the belief that, based on years of experience, America was a "paper tiger."
Justice: The September 11 attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. The strikes were unprovoked under any fair standard, unwarned, directed at persons with no substantial connections to al Qaeda's complaints against U.S. policy, and outside any commonly accepted method of war. Our most foundational notions of justice demand that the chief perpetrator answer for these deeds.
Indeed, one may genuinely ask whether a state that cannot provide justice to thousands of its murdered citizens has fulfilled its cardinal duties to establish justice and provide for the common defense.
Public confidence: The threat of terrorism, including catastrophic terrorism, is and will be an omnipresent reality. We must meet this threat with the severity and vigor commensurate with the peril. But we must also not overreact. Striking a proper balance between excessive sanguinity and frenetic paranoia requires that the U.S. government instill sufficient confidence in the American public by succeeding in basic key tasks of the counterterror effort. Americans must believe that their government is competent enough to carry through on its basic security responsibilities, especially those it has publicly proclaimed as essential, as President Bush repeatedly did regarding capturing bin Laden in the wake of September 11.
Though in the future we may find it unwise to elevate a single figure into the role of "Enemy No. 1," we have already done so with bin Laden and must deal with this reality. Nor should the concern be confined to Americans: September 11, 2001, was also a blow against the international system as a whole, a point driven home by the ensuing United Nations Security Council and NATO declarations.
Dampen jihadi enthusiasm: Even though bin Laden may not exercise operational control over the international jihadi movement, he is clearly an olympian figure to active and aspiring radicals of successful resistance to the United States. His ability to elude U.S. and allied efforts to track him down gives credence to the jihadi caricature of the United States as a pitiful, helpless giant.
Capturing or killing bin Laden would by no means "solve" the problem of radical Islamist terror networks, but it would surely dampen the enthusiasm of their members. And history suggests that removing a charismatic leader of a movement, especially one who serves as a rallying point for groups with differing interests, as bin Laden does, can result in a strong blow to its health and popularity. The examples of Che Guevara and Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK support this.
Indeed, especially in a war so influenced by images and symbols, knocking down the most potent symbol of radical Islamist terrorism must be a top priority.
Two days after September 11, 2001, President Bush commendably pledged that the United States would not rest until Osama bin Laden was killed or captured. In the intervening years, the difficulty of the task, support for al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal regions, foot-dragging by the Pakistani government, the consuming pull of the war in Iraq, the absence of a second attack on the Homeland, and the natural distractibility of the United States have all contributed to a slackened pursuit for bin Laden. Now the temptation is to think that perhaps our first reaction was wrong and we may not need to track down bin Laden.
There will be real costs to redoubling the pursuit. But these costs, real as they are, are outweighed by the necessity of doing all reasonable in our power to kill or capture bin Laden. Even with these drawbacks, our interests and justice demand it.
Elbridge Colby, an adjunct staff member at the Rand Corp., served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and on the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on February 27, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.