The killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces constitutes a significant victory over global terrorism, but it is a milestone, not a turning point, in what remains an ongoing struggle with no foreseeable end.
The significance of what was accomplished stems in part from bin Laden’s symbolic importance. He has been an icon, representing the ability to strike with success against the US and the West. That icon has now been eliminated.
Another positive consequence is the demonstrated effect of counter-terrorism operations carried out by US soldiers. As a result, some terrorists, one hopes, will decide to become former terrorists — and some young radicals might now think twice before deciding to become terrorists in the first place.
However, any celebration needs to be tempered by certain realities. Bin Laden’s demise, as welcome as it is, should in no way be equated with the demise of terrorism.
Terrorism is a decentralized phenomenon — in its funding, planning and execution. Removing bin Laden does not end the terrorist threat. There are successors, starting with Ayman al-Zawahiri in al-Qaeda, as well as in autonomous groups operating out of Yemen, Somalia and other countries. So terrorism will continue. Indeed, it could even grow somewhat worse in the short run, as there are sure to be those who will want to show that they can still strike against the West.
The best parallel that I can think of when it comes to understanding terrorism and how to deal with it is disease. There are steps that can and should be taken to attack or neutralize certain types of viruses or bacteria, to reduce vulnerability to infection and to reduce the consequences of infection if, despite all of our efforts, we become ill. Disease is not something that can be eliminated, but often it can be managed.
There are obvious parallels with terrorism. As we have recently witnessed, terrorists can be attacked and stopped before they can cause harm; individuals and countries can be defended and societies can take steps to bolster their resilience when they are successfully attacked, as on occasion they inevitably will be. These elements of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy can reduce the threat to manageable, or at least tolerable, levels.
However, tolerable is not good enough when it comes to protecting innocent life. We need to do better. The answer is to be found in the realm of prevention. More must be done to interrupt the recruitment of terrorists, thereby reducing the threat before it materializes.
Most terrorists today are young and male and, while the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims are not terrorists, many of the world’s terrorists are Muslim.
It would help enormously in this regard if Arab and Muslim political leaders spoke out against the intentional killing of men, women, and children by anyone or any group for political purposes. There is also a pivotal role here for religious leaders, educators, and parents. Terrorism must be stripped of any legitimacy that it may be viewed as having.
One potential positive development stems from the political changes that we are seeing in many parts of the Middle East. There is a greater chance than before that young people will become more integrated in their own societies (and less susceptible to the appeal of extremism) if they enjoy greater political and economic opportunities.