May 6, 2011

Colonel, researcher debate terrorism post—bin Laden

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The ongoing campus-wide discussion concerning the death of Osama bin Laden continued at International House (I-House) Thursday night, as two experts on terrorism debated potential repercussions of the leader of Al Qaeda’s death.

The forum, “The War on Terrorism After bin Laden,” was moderated by a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, and featured dialogue between Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer and Harris School post-doctoral fellow Jenna Jordan.

The talk took place under the Chatham House Rule, which states that, to encourage open expression, media sources may not attribute statements to specific speakers.

Sawyer’s comments drew on his career as an intelligence officer and his role as director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy, while Jordan’s insights were culled from her research on “decapitation of leadership” in terrorist organizations.

The symposium members discussed how bin Laden’s death would affect Al Qaeda’s future, along with U.S.-Middle East relations.

One speaker said that–despite common misconceptions–the search for bin Laden began after the 1998 African embassy bombings. In this sense, the killing “demonstrates an incredible amount of strategic patience on the United States’ part.”

The speakers also addressed the impact of losing a charismatic leader in bin Laden. One speaker warned, “it’s hard to imagine that his death will not inspire more terrorism in the short run…The ‘martyr effect’ is huge.”

But, the panelist said, bin Laden’s death gives U.S. military intelligence a new opportunity to focus on other parts of the Al Qaeda establishment.

During a question and answer session after the talks, attendees asked if anyone could truly replace a figurehead like bin Laden, and how U.S. operations in Afghanistan might be affected.

One person posed the hotly debated question of whether Pakistani government officials had known of bin Laden’s whereabouts. The panel agreed it was impossible to tell at present.

America should be proud, they contended, but the event should also “give us pause and reflection to understand the fight against terrorism.”

But both speakers concluded that the public cannot yet draw any conclusions about the leader’s death: “It’s not CSI, it’s not 24, that at the end of the evening the episode is wrapped up.”

Dean of Students at the Harris School Ellen Cohen said she wanted to organize the event quickly, featuring high-profile speakers while bin Laden’s death was still being actively discussed in the U of C community.

The seminar was jointly sponsored by International House, the Harris School, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.