The endless touchdown dance that President Obama and his surrogates are taking on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, which is turning what should be a unifying event into a partisan one, risks tarnishing the heroic work of the Special Operators and intelligence officers who tracked down and killed the world’s most wanted man. It also risks exaggerating the consequences of bin Laden’s demise.
Al-Qaeda “central” was already in decline prior to its leaders’ death, but as RAND political scientist Seth Jones rightly warns, al-Qaeda remains a very real threat. Especially potent are its regional affiliates (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and closely related terrorist organizations such as the Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Harem in Nigeria, and, in Pakistan, Lashkar e Taiba, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and others. And that’s not even to mention Hezbollah and Hamas, which in some ways remain the most potent Islamist terrorist organizations of all because they control actual territory. Oh, and in Iraq there is still a threat from various Mahdist army offshoots sponsored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, which has terrorist tentacles stretching all the way from Latin America to the Levant.
Faced with this panoply of threats, we would be guilty of wishful thinking if we were to declare victory prematurely. Unfortunately, Islamist-inspired terrorists will continue to threaten our interests–and our homeland–for the foreseeable future. And it is not hard to sketch out possible scenarios–involving, say, a state collapse in Pakistan, a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, or an Islamist seizure of power in Yemen or Somalia, or the acquisition of WMD by any terrorist group–that could substantially heighten the threat.
I don’t mean to dismiss the blows that al-Qaeda and its ilk have suffered, which are reflected in public opinion polls which show declining support across the Muslim world for al-Qaeda–the Pew Research Center finds 71 percent of Egyptians, 77 percent of Jordanians, 55 percent of Pakistanis, 73 percent of Turks, and 98 percent of Lebanese holding an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda. But groups such as al-Qaeda–or the Taliban, or Hezbollah, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards–do not typically take power in free and fair elections and even relatively small numbers of determined terrorists, no matter how unpopular, can still cause considerable carnage. Especially if they can get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, something that the rising power of Islamism in Pakistan and the increasing progress of the Iranian nuclear program make more probable.
The biggest danger we face on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s well-deserved demise, for which President Obama deserves all the credit in the world, is that of complacency. If we let our guard down–if, for example, we leave Afghanistan prematurely before that country is more secure and stable–then we risk letting our mortal foes recover from the blows they have suffered in the past decade.