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Sunday, October 3, 2010

So If We DID Kill Bin Laden, What Next?

In my last post I speculated that U.S. drones or intelligence services might be closing in on Osama bin Laden. So what happens if we kill him?

UPDATE: We've Killed Bin Laden, What Happens Next?

It's not enough to strike a location and applaud. First off, we need verification and that means troops or CIA agents on the ground to make a positive identification. The reasons for this are obvious. The Pakistanis won't be happy, but they never are.

Second, we need to sterilize the site. We will obviously gather intelligence treasures from the scene, but we need to do more than that. The site should be scrubbed so thoroughly you can't tell anyone was there. Leave no bodies, leave no equipment, no evidence of an attack (inasmuch as possible).

There are a couple of reasons for doing this. In the aftermath of killing Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, U.S. messaging made significant mistakes. The most important of these was releasing a close-up photograph of Zarqawi's dead face. Those pictures were made into martyrdom fetishes online within hours of their release.

Such images are an essential part of the lifeblood of the jihadist movement. So if we hit a target we are highly confident is bin Laden, we should leave nothing to celebrate. We should also suppress photographs of bin Laden's body for as long as possible. Given our open society, they won't stay buried forever, but we should buy ourselves a lot of time, so that when the pictures eventually emerge, there is some distance from the actual event.

It's not just about the martyr pictures. Removing all bodies and all inventory from the scene will leave ambiguity for the jihadists. If they can't confirm bin Laden is dead, then we not only control the messaging, we also gain a slightly wider window to exploit any intelligence gained from the site.

This time is critical because killing bin Laden alone will not end Al Qaeda or even cripple it. Quite the opposite. In the short term, it will probably energize the base. But killing bin Laden and Zawahiri within a couple of days of each other would have a significant impact on both morale and operations.

Hitting bin Laden alone will have exponentially less impact on operations than killing both OBL and Zawahiri. If we got Yahya Al-Libi as well, we'd have a shot at truly paralyzing the organization for long enough that even the unenthusiastic Pakistanis might be willing to carve it up.

As Jarret Brachman famously observed, Al Qaeda has become a media operation with a terrorist component, rather than what it was before, a terrorist operation with a media component. There are plenty of qualified terrorists to take up Al Qaeda's "external operations." But as a media operation, it needs figureheads.

Take out AQ's three top stars, and who's going to step up? Mustafa Abu al-Yazid is already dead, and Gadahn doesn't have the intellectual weight or rhetorical passion to fill those big shoes. Certainly there will be no lack of people trying to fill the void, but bin Laden, Zawahiri and Al-Libi are the proven commodities. Knock out all three of them, and the marquee power of Al Qaeda's media operation goes from must-see-TV to basic cable.

Speaking of the Pakistanis, the likely impact of doubling down on these top-level kills is so significant that we should do whatever it takes to make it happen, whether the Pakistanis like it or not. If that means U.S. troops storming or even demolishing houses in Quetta, so be it. While this will create a significant diplomatic disaster, the benefits probably outweigh the costs. It's a calculated risk, but not a gamble. We can ameliorate the situation somewhat by making public statements or even pledges that these successes will allow us to scale back or even quit our current military activities inside Pakistan.

Finally, we should lower our expectations. Even a best case scenario where we capture or kill the trifecta of bin Laden, Zawahiri and Libi, Al Qaeda will continue for a very long time, both in Pakistan and elsewhere. A successful strike is not a solution to terrorism, but it would buy us much-needed flexibility in re-aligning our foreign policy in the region and around the world away from the current single-minded focus, which comes at the expense of many other priorities.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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