Opportunity and Challenge From Bin Laden's Death

A decade after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Osama bin Laden is dead. A flood of questions now begins. What next, for terrorism itself and for U.S. counterterrorism policy?

As for terrorism, we'll most certainly see an upsurge of chatter as terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda digest the news and consider options. But, we're not likely to see an upsurge in successful attacks. If Al Qaeda had sleeper cells already in the field, it is likely they would have already struck. That means that any near term attempts are likely to be characterized by a low level of competence or sophistication, like the failed bombing attempt in Times Square in 2010.

Of enormous interest will be who seeks to become Osama Bin Laden's heir apparent. Ayman Al Zawahri, Bin Laden's longtime deputy fits the bill intellectually and by pedigree, with his resume as a senior leader of Al Qaeda core. But age and lack of charismatic appeal make him unlikely. Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) more likely fits the bill. At 40 years old, he is young and highly effective at using the internet for inspiration, recruitment, and training. Awlaki has been extremely active. He reportedly recruited and trained Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. His online lectures inspired Times Square bomber Faisal Sharzad. And he exchanged at least 18 e-mails with Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. What makes Awlaki's potential ascendancy particularly intriguing is the fact that he is an American citizen, and that President Obama has authorized his assassination. Awlaki's aspirations to the Bin Laden mantle would be strengthened by an endorsement from Zawahri. It remains to be seen whether Al Qaeda core would be willing to do this and effectively merge or subordinate itself to AQAP, or whether Zawahri would stand apart, viewing AQAP as a competitor.

For U.S. foreign policy, Bin Laden's death is clearly an enormous victory. The challenge it presents is how President Obama combines this victory with the opportunities presented by Arab Spring. Can President Obama jointly harness both events to fundamentally reshape for the better the US relationship with the Arab Muslim world? Can the United States constructively cultivate the social and political reforms set in motion by the Arab Spring to take the wind out of the sails of radical Islamist terrorism? Can the United States shepherd political and social reform in the Arab world so as to blunt, rechannel, or ameliorate the discontent and anger that have fueled misguided adherents of Al Qaeda's ideology?

As regards US counterterrorism policy, Bin Laden's death won't change much in terms of policy, but hopefully, it will significantly change the politics of counterterrorism. Political partisanship on the issue of terrorism has stood in the way of building durable national consensus around U.S. counterterrorism policies. Many Democrats remain angry at President Bush and Republicans for the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo. As such, some Democrats have remained uncomfortable dealing with counterterrorism under the laws of war, for fear of the negative consequences that can create for human rights and civil liberties. Many Republicans have insinuated that Democrats don't take terrorism seriously enough or that only Republicans could be counted on to be tough on terrorists.

Predictably, such arguments dominated the debate last month over where the trial for Kalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and the 9/11 plotters at Guantanamo would occur. The Obama Administration had since 2009 sought to move their trial to US criminal courts. These efforts were thwarted by Congressional moves that prevented the transfer of Guantanamo inmates to U.S. soil. The KSM trial will now take place in military commissions that were established under President Bush. Democrats decried Obama's failure to move the trials to civilian criminal courts, while Republicans again argued that Democrats could not be trusted to get tough with terrorists.

Bin Laden's death should put an end, once and for all, to the notion that one party has a monopoly on being tough on terrorists. President Obama has aggressively waged the fight against terrorism as war. He significantly expanded the use of drone strikes against terrorist targets, and he gave the order to kill Bin Laden. At the same time, he has pragmatically sought to use all tools at his disposal, including both law enforcement and military means.

With Bin Laden dead and the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, the trial of the 9/11 plotters may now have a chance to unify the country. This would be game changing. The U.S. dialogue on terrorism has been too partisan for too long. Decades-long bipartisan consensus allowed us to confront and defeat the Soviet Union. Let's hope that today is the beginning of the beginning of forging greater unity and consensus around how the United States will eventually prevail over the terrorist threat.

Daniel B. Prieto is the former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of War About Terror: Civil Liberties and National Security after 9/11.