It took the United States ten long and painstaking years, but finally the mastermind behind the most egregious terrorist attack on U.S. soil met his demise. This is truly a time for jubilation, as the United States revealed to terrorist groups and the world that it will stop at nothing to bring those who murder U.S. citizens to justice. But will bin Laden’s death alter the prism in which the U.S. sees the world? Since 9/11, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has defined U.S. foreign policy, as well as how Washington treats its allies, the Muslim world, and American Muslims. It has stimulated expensive and prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and mushroomed U.S. debt. Thus, it’s prudent to ask, will Osama bin Laden’s death change anything? The simple answer is no.
U.S. forces severed one head of a hydra-headed network of terrorists, which may easily grow back with the ascension of another prominent and revered extremist. Essentially, the death of bin Laden does not mean the end of global terrorism. In fact, the gloomy reality is that terrorists across the globe will now be more eager to show the United States and the West that the death of their beloved leader only strengthened their resolve and increased the likelihood of extremist attack. Even radical Islamists with no connection to the al-Qaeda franchise may be willing to pay a blood price against the United States for his death.
Similarly, though this episode sours U.S.-Pakistani relations, it won’t damage the strategic partnership. However, it does call into question Islamabad’s trustworthiness. The fact that the world’s most dangerous terrorist was found in a pretentious, fortress-like compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, situated near a major Pakistani army base, discloses just how much of an ally Islamabad really is. The U.S. may react by withholding the $1.5 billion annual aid packages to Pakistan, and renegotiate the terms of their partnership. Washington is likely to push for more CIA and government contractor operations within Pakistan—a move that will undoubtedly infuriate the Pakistani public and fuel anti-American sentiment in the country. But regardless of public opposition, the U.S. and Pakistan will continue to cooperate because of their mutual dependence. Both share the same objectives—combating terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan. They just have divergent views on addressing them.
It should also be disputed whether bin Laden’s death has any meaningful implications for the Arab Spring. Many analysts postulate that the recent power vacuums are fertile ground for Islamic extremists wishing to penetrate Mideast politics and provide an alternative anti-American policy platform. However, it can be argued that the Middle East uprisings have cast al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups into the trash bin of history by showing their irrelevance. This is a more sensible line of reasoning because it suggests that the recent revolutions signify that the Muslim world has no interest in using violence to achieve political goals. In fact, the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world view terrorism as an anathema, not a viable means of political action. Thus, ultimately, bin Laden’s legacy of extremism was already losing popularity in the Middle East before he was killed.
In light of these facts, U.S. policymakers will find themselves navigating a world unshaken by the death of al Qaeda’s leader. But, while Osama bin Laden was the world’s most wanted man, his shadow represented something far more sinister—it revealed to the world the counterproductive actions the U.S. is willing to get embroiled in when provoked by an elusive and misunderstood adversary. Similarly, his presence detracted the United States from tackling real existential threats such as the dark looming cloud of debt. It aroused U.S. adventurism in the Islamic world, tarnished our image in the eyes of Muslims, and exhausted our military in capital and in lives. Much damage has been done in large part because of the actions of one man, and it will take many U.S. administrations to rehabilitate America’s image in the Muslim world. I do believe this is a time for rejoicing, but it is also a time to reflect on what the last decade has taught us—that the global war on terror is not over, and it may never be over, and this is only a milestone, not a turning point.
Adam Ahmad is a graduate student in international relations.