Commentary Magazine

After Bin Laden

“Tonight, President Barack Obama announced on May 2, “I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda.” His speech centered on the long effort that culminated in bin Laden’s death. The future occupied just three sentences: “His death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must—and we will—remain vigilant at home and abroad.” For those who defined the primary goal of the past decade’s harrowing battle against terrorism narrowly as the manhunt for bin Laden or, a bit more broadly, as a fight against al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s death not only meant that justice had been done and the United States had succeeded in securing an important national goal. It meant closure of a different kind.

Immediately after Obama concluded his news conference, former New Republic editor Peter Beinart declared, “The war on terror is over.” His colleague at the New America Foundation, CNN analyst Peter Bergen, similarly declared, “Killing bin Laden is the end of the war on terror….It’s time to move on.” The day after bin Laden’s death, former president Jimmy Carter told CNN, “I would hope that this could expedite our exit from Afghanistan.” Democrats in Congress echoed his call. “This is our moment to draw down. I urge the president to make a swift, safe withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan,” declared Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat. Republicans of a libertarian isolationist bent agreed: “I’m in [the] belief that [the] timetable [to withdraw from Afghanistan] should be tomorrow,” said former New Mexico governor and Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

These are dangerous and self-defeating notions. Nothing could snatch defeat from the jaws of the victory over bin Laden faster than an American disengagement from the war on terror. Those who believe bin Laden’s death has brought the war on terror to an end fundamentally misunderstand the ideology that motivates both jihadist terrorism and Islamist antipathy toward the West in general and the United States in particular. To be sure, influential scholars and analysts have pointedly denied the importance of Islamist ideology in their considerations of the root causes of the new kind of terrorism that has come to plague the United States, Israel, and the West over the past two decades. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has made a cottage industry out of downplaying Islamist ideology. “It’s the occupation, stupid,” he once quipped, explaining that “suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance.” If only the United States removed American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, brought the American navy home from the Persian Gulf, and joined Islamic countries in demanding an end to Israel’s presence on land claimed by Palestinians and India’s presence on land claimed by Pakistan, then anti-Western terrorism would end, his argument goes.

This is a view espoused not only by academics comfortably housed in provincial urban quads and picturesque college towns. It has also been part of the ideological foundation of liberal and isolationist arguments against the American response to 9/11—as espoused by figures as various as the one-time Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean and Rep. Ron Paul, the nation’s leading libertarian. The idea is simple: we have summoned the terrorist storm upon ourselves, and we can calm it by changing our behavior.

That is nonsense. Suicide bomb attacks, which are nearly impossible to defend against once they are in motion, have become the terrorist signatures of our time. They are an outgrowth of the export of contemporary interpretations of Islam from Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia and Shia clerics in Iran. Islamist radicals willing to terrorize young women in Paris housing projects and to murder night-clubbing newlyweds in Java are not acting in reaction to occupation. They are embracing a once radical, now increasingly mainstream, strain of Islamic interpretation—one that Obama, for all his worldliness and his four boyhood years in Indonesia, does not understand.


Obama entered office determined to disassociate Islam from al-Qaeda’s terrorism and launder the image of Islam sullied by those who carry out terrorism in its name. This was apparent during Obama’s June 4, 2009, address to the Muslim world. The president said he came to Cairo “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” He emphasized the “common principles” American culture and Islam supposedly share—for example, an emphasis on “justice and progress” and “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” And he sought to cultivate Muslim pride by crediting Islam, not without reason, for carrying “the light of learning through so many centuries”—likening that to the way “the United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.”

Obama’s speech reflects his confident American assumption that multiculturalism is a positive force. Born to a Kenyan and a Kansan, schooled in Indonesia, and raised in Hawaii, Obama is the apotheosis of multiculturalism. But for Islamist radicals, multiculturalism is the problem. Their struggle, their jihad, is precisely dedicated to preventing the contamination of Islam by Western values, ideas, and faiths. Jihad is not a search for coexistence; it is about Islam’s predominance.

This last assertion is a controversial one within the Middle Eastern studies community and Muslim advocacy groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the most prestigious such activist group despite its problematic standing as an unindicted co-conspirator in a major terrorist funding case, has flatly declared: “Jihad means to strive, struggle, and exert effort….There is no such thing as ‘holy war’ in Islam.” John Esposito, founding director of the (Saudi-funded) Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is more nuanced, but still largely in agreement. “Jihad in Islam means the struggle to be a good Muslim,” he told PBS. Any military component is limited, he argued: “Jihad also means the right, indeed the obligation, of a Muslim to defend himself.”

Both claims mischaracterize traditional Islamic jurisprudence. During the Golden Age of Islam between the 8th and 13th centuries—an age that both Saudi and Pakistani extremists wish to replicate in our time—most theologians understood jihad to be a military matter. The 9th-century Islamic scholar Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari, compiler of the most authoritative collection of reports about the prophet Muhammad’s life and sayings, dedicated one-third of a volume specifically to jihad as holy war.

The key to understanding why so many terrorists believe Islam justifies their actions and why using inhuman tactics actually elevates them to the status of holy warriors is a proper understanding of the recent history of Islam in Saudi Arabia, the richest Muslim country. In the 1970s, against the backdrop of the oil boom and concurrent influx of luxury goods into the newly affluent Saudi society, Saudi theologians started promoting the idea that Western goods—color televisions, VCRs, Cadillacs, and designer clothes—represented an assault against Islam as menacing as any military threat. They described a deliberate Western “cultural attack” that aimed to undermine Muslim faith in order to ready Muslim society for conversion to Christianity. To these paranoid preachers, the Hawaii Five-O television series posed as much of a threat as an F-14 fighter over Mecca.

Into this xenophobic tinderbox came a spark in the form of a Palestinian adherent of the Egyptian radical movement called the Muslim Brotherhood. His name was Abdullah Azzam. After completing a doctorate in Islamic law in Cairo’s al-Azhar University, Azzam taught briefly at the University of Jordan, but was fired because of his ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. He landed a new job at King Abdulaziz University in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. It was here that a young Osama bin Laden first met the man who would become his theological mentor.

Azzam added a new dimension to the discussion of the Western cultural assault: he argued that every Muslim had a duty to defend Islamic lands against the penetration of infidels, be they in the form of armies—like the Soviet army in Afghanistan—or over the airwaves, as American culture so often manifested itself. The Muslim’s obligation to fight was not optional; it was as mandatory as the Ramadan fast or daily prayer. Iranian officials developed a corollary to this argument. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the state-controlled Iranian press, for example, often describe a “cultural NATO” that seeks to undercut Islamic values by promoting everything from pop-music to McDonalds to feminism.

Western experts may argue that Islam allows only a defensive fight and may therefore conclude, as Pape has, that a physical American presence in Islamic lands is the irritant that sparks terrorism. Such conclusions, however, are the result of projecting Western assumptions about what is aggressive and defensive onto the sensibilities of Islamist radicals. The fact of the matter is that many Islamists believe that the United States is on the offensive no matter what its foreign or military policy might be. That we embrace Western norms and liberal values is, for Azzam’s followers, a casus belli.

Washington’s refusal to understand that radicals like bin Laden see America as being in a state of perpetual war against them has long undercut American counterterrorism policy. President Bill Clinton, for example, prioritized diplomacy over military strategies because he sought to avoid cycles of retaliation. Neither the 1993 World Trade Center attack nor bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war on America led Clinton to order military reprisals.

American passivity did not convince al-Qaeda to cease targeting American interests, however. On August 7, 1997, al-Qaeda bombers struck the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 and wounding more than 4,000. Clinton ordered a retaliatory strike two weeks later on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant suspected of making nerve gas and four Afghan terror-training camps. But the strike was more symbolic than real: Clinton timed the assault for the middle of the night in order to minimize casualties, destroying buildings but not terrorists. That the Afghan camps were four of many long known to intelligence underscored Clinton’s hands-off approach.

Nor did that retaliation signal a fundamental shift in White House policy. In 2000, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the USS Cole as it pulled into Aden to refuel. Rather than lead bin Laden to call off the 9/11 attack then being planned, Clinton refused to retaliate and bin Laden was emboldened.

Osama bin Laden’s death was necessary both as an act of justice and as a message to future bin Ladens that the United States is capable of relentless pursuit for many years. Jihadists, for their part, have been engaged in an ongoing debate over how al-Qaeda can most successfully operate in the long term. While some theoreticians, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, have emphasized the need for a decentralized structure to defeat American surveillance and counterterrorism efforts, others, such as Abu Bakr Naji, emphasize the necessity of seeking security through possession of territory.

Since 9/11, al-Qaeda has spawned four major subunits: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In addition, various al-Qaeda affiliates and terrorist groups operate from Pakistan: the Quetta shura, the Haqqani network, and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda groups are entrenching themselves in Pakistan’s Punjab province, a densely populated plain that is home to more than half of Pakistan’s population. This devolution from centralized command would seem to be the fulfillment of al-Suri’s recommendations. But in each case al-Qaeda thrives in places with weak government, which suggests Naji’s influence. Al-Qaeda still has free reign in its Somali, Saharan, Yemeni, and Pakistani safe havens to plan attacks against Western targets.

The American failure to deal with the existence of these safe havens suggests the same lack of American seriousness about counterterrorism that marked U.S. policy through the 1990s and likely foreshadows deadly attacks on American soil in the future. There have been attempts in the last two years. AQAP planned a Christmas Day bombing of Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009 that was averted only when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian engineer, failed to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear. Likewise, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American born in Pakistan who sought to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010, trained with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas of Waziristan.


Thus, the worst possible thing Western leaders could do in the wake of bin Laden’s death would be to use it as a way to hasten a withdrawal from Afghanistan—or, as Bush-era former Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Blackwill has suggested, to talk to the Taliban and perhaps even cede control over Pashto areas of Afghanistan to them. Not only did Taliban leaders prove themselves insincere during previous bouts of American engagement, but there is also precedent that demonstrates how territorial concessions can and will backfire.

In April 2009, the Pakistani army scrambled to counter a Taliban push on Buner, a district 60 miles from Islamabad. The army was caught unawares because, two months earlier, Pakistani authorities in the Northwest Frontier Province had struck a deal ceding control of a neighboring area to a local Taliban group. Rather than end their struggle, however, the Taliban used the territory as a springboard for expansion. With their safe haven established, the Taliban doubled the number of forces in the Swat Valley to at least 6,000, enabling their march southward. Violence in Pakistan declined only after the Pakistani army recaptured key Taliban strongholds of Swat Valley, Bajaur Agency, and South Waziristan.

Withdrawal from the fight is not an option for the United States.


The war on terrorism is far from over. On an ideological level, their core theology requires the extremists to continue their struggle, and so Western disengagement would be only a form of unilateral disarmament. We will stop. They won’t. If the White House or the Congress walks away, al-Qaeda will simply have fewer obstacles to overcome as they plot attacks against the United States.

Terrorists thrive in a vacuum. Just as the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan aimed to seize territory, hold it, and build on it, success in the war on terrorism requires the United States to do the same. Keeping and maintaining bases abroad is essential. Not only do American forces on the ground force Islamist radicals to retreat, they also enable the United States to gather the practical intelligence that makes snatch-and-grab operations possible. Knowing where a master terrorist slept last night is far less helpful than getting a tip on where he will sleep tomorrow. The Americans could not have killed bin Laden if they had not had bases from which their helicopters could operate in Afghanistan. Rather than departing, the United States must secure Afghanistan and use it as a bulwark against other terrorist safe havens. Engaging the Taliban would be like spraying gasoline over a log cabin, and trusting Pakistan as a partner to stabilize Afghanistan in a post-American order would be like housing an arsonist there.

The United States must leverage the territory it has denied extremists to quarantine and shrink other terror safe havens. It should use Afghanistan, India, and the Central Asian republics to quarantine Pakistan while pressuring Pakistanis relentlessly to eradicate the terrorist groups it currently shelters. Likewise, it is essential that the United States partner with and remain engaged in Iraq, so as to protect the Fertile Crescent from Iranian influence and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Predators and special teams must keep al-Qaeda groups on the run in Somalia, Yemen, and the Maghreb.

The White House and, indeed, all Americans can celebrate bin Laden’s death as a promise fulfilled. And Obama sounded the right note in his speech when he acknowledged that “his death does not mark the end of our effort.” Still, there will be a great temptation for Obama to view the killing of bin Laden as the climactic act in the existential fight America began waging  in earnest only after September 11. If he surrenders to that temptation, the temptation offered him by the words of Beinart and Bergen and the Middle Eastern studies professoriat, he will be remembered by historians as a feckless leader who foolishly mistook his victory in one battle for victory in an ongoing war with a remorseless foe.

About the Author

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a regular contributor to Commentary’s blog. His article, “The Road to Tahrir Square,” appeared in our March issue.

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