End of bin Laden doesn't necessarily mean end of al-Qaida, experts say
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - If the head of al-Qaida is gone, does that mean the body of the terrorist organization will wither away? Students of terrorism and the Middle East aren't so sure that scenario will play out following the death of Osama bin Laden.
"The removal of bin Laden at this point obviously hurts their command and control structure," says Alden Craddock of Maryville University, the director of Maryville University's Center for Civic Engagement and Democracy. "But people who wished us ill in the past still do.
"From everything we understand about the operations of al-Qaida, this is more symbolic than anything else. Everything has been fragmented, so you have local groups who are pursuing the general mission of terrorist activity, based on their own interests. Much of the terrorist activity taking place right now is locally controlled, not centrally controlled, so the removal of bin Laden probably will have very little direct effect."
And revenge against the United States is almost a certain response, added Jean-Robert Leguey Feuilleux, a professor of political science at Saint Louis University.
"There's no doubt we have to be on high alert," he added. "Some may already be planning action. Nevertheless, this is one more dent in their organization."
Putting the death of bin Laden into the larger context of the uprisings in the Middle East over the past few months, Leguey Feuilleux said that al-Qaida's influence in the region has been surprisingly slight.
"With the uprisings in countries like Tunisia and Libya," he said, "Osama's organization has not been able to capture their support. That's remarkable. There was a time when al-Qaida was ready to jump in and capture the feelings of unrest in Islamic countries. But we have made a dent in their ability to strike when they want. They were not organized to take advantage of the opportunity those uprisings created for them."
As far as what effect the death of bin Laden may have on U.S. engagement in the Middle East, Craddock said Americans need to understand that future involvement in that region must continue.
"The vast majority of the Arab world and the people in the Middle East are opposed to bin Laden," he said. "Look at the raw numbers, and you'll see how many Arabs and Muslims have been killed by al-Qaida and all the splinter groups that broke off from them.
"We absolutely need to be engaged. It is a part of the world where a lot of destabilization is occurring. I applaud the current administration in the sense that they are not going along into this activity but reaching out to pan-African and pan-Arab movements and utilizing NATO, so this is seen as an international initiative, not just a U.S. initiative."
Whether President Barack Obama will win such plaudits at home remains to be seen. The actions he ordered that led to the killing of bin Laden garnered bipartisan support Monday, but political observers said that you had only to look back to the term of George H.W. Bush to realize how quickly high poll ratings in the wake of an international triumph can vanish if domestic problems like a sluggish economy persist.
"For the moment," said Gwyneth Williams, a professor in the department of history, politics and international relations at Webster University, "it appears that it quiets critics on the right about whether or not Obama is sufficiently strongly prosecuting the war against terrorists. It shows him as being an aggressive and competent commander in chief.
"It will give him a bounce in the polls, I'm sure. But it's a long way from the next set of elections. Whether the bounce he gets now would resonate in 2012 is unknown."
Adds David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:
"The good news politically for Republicans is that it's still about a year and a half from elections, and lots of other events will take place between now and then. But I do think it affects perceptions of him in terms of foreign policy.
"In recent years, Democrats have been perceived as the weaker, more timid political party on national security. This runs contrary to that perception, not just killing bin Laden but going after him in another country, and what sounds like doing it on our own. This is the kind of cowboy thing that I think Republican presidents are typically associated with."
Kimball said the decisive mission against bin Laden may also help to dispel an image of Obama as being too cerebral, thinking about problems at great length instead of taking action.
"That criticism has been leveled against him more on domestic politics," Kimball said, "particularly from Democrats who thought it took him too long to weigh in on health-care reform and the budget.
"When that criticism is made on domestic issues, it's harder to evaluate because in domestic politics, there are so many other players involved. This would seem to run contrary to that criticism, though we don't know the whole story about how long this mission had been planned."
As next year's election approaches, Williams said, how much the bin Laden capture influences voters is likely to depend on how well other foreign operations proceed.
"If this were the only thing, or the main thing going on with him in foreign policy and military activity, it might loom larger in people's consciousness," she said. "But because we're also involved in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, the extent to which this would be dominating people's views on foreign affairs is difficult to tell. And ultimately, the economy trumps everything else."
Kimball added that any Republicans who are weighing whether they should get involved in next year's race may think again in light of the killing of bin Laden.
"This could make them hesitate and think, 'Gee, do I want to go through all the misery of a presidential campaign, one I might lose?' I think it will lead some of the potential candidates to wait until 2016.
"And aside from the bin Laden thing, there's another area where history doesn't look too good for the opposition party: A president running for re-election historically does well, particularly when it's the first term since his party has recaptured the presidency."
But as academics and others try to figure out what may happen on the political front, the more immediate concern is safety for Americans at home and abroad. The bottom line, says Leguey Feuilleux, is simple:
"We must remain cautious. That's very important. Bin Laden won't be able to plan any more actions, but his legacy is still there. We have to be aware that more needs to be done to undermine the movement."