When Terror Loses Its Grip

It is a bizarre historical coincidence. President Barack Obama announced to the world that Osama bin Laden was dead on May 1, the very same day that, 66 years earlier, the German government announced that Adolf Hitler was dead. It's fitting that two of history's great mass murderers share a day of death. (Sort of. Hitler actually killed himself a day earlier, but his death was not revealed to the world until the following day.) Both embodied charisma and intelligence deployed in the service of evil — and both were utterly callous about the killing of innocents to further their causes. (See the top 10 evil lairs.)

There are, of course, many differences between Hitler and bin Laden. But one great similarity holds. Hitler's death marked the end of the Nazi challenge from Germany. And bin Laden's death will mark the end of the global threat of al-Qaeda.

Let me be clear. Of course, there are still groups that call themselves al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and elsewhere. They will still plot and execute terrorist attacks. We will still have to be vigilant and go after them. But the danger from al-Qaeda was always much more than that of a few isolated terrorist attacks. It was an ideological message that we feared had an appeal across the Muslim world of 1.5 billion believers. The organization had created a message of opposition and defiance that was resonating in that world during the 1990s and right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (See pictures from September11, 2001.)

A few weeks after 9/11, I wrote an essay titled "Why They Hate Us," exploring the roots of this Muslim rage. I argued that while U.S. foreign policy might be a contributing factor to the unhappiness of Arabs, it could not alone explain the scale, depth and intensity of Islamic terrorism. After all, U.S. foreign policy over the years has victimized many countries in Latin America and killed millions of Vietnamese, and yet you did not see terrorism emanating from those quarters. There was something different about the nature of Arab frustration that had morphed into anti-American terrorism.

The central problem, I argued, was that the stagnation and repression of the Arab world — 40 years of tyranny and decay — had led to deep despair and finally to extreme opposition movements. The one aspect of Arab society that dictators could not ban was religion. So the mosque became the gathering ground of opposition movements, and Islam — the one language that could not be censored — became the voice of opposition. The U.S. became a target because we supported the Arab autocracies. (See the top 10 autocrats in trouble.)

Al-Qaeda is a Saudi-Egyptian alliance — bin Laden was Saudi; Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, is Egyptian — that was formed to topple the Saudi and Egyptian regimes and others like them. And that is why bin Laden's death comes at a particularly bad moment for the movement he launched. Its founding rationale has been shattered by the Arab Spring of this year. Al-Qaeda believed that the only way to topple the dictatorships of the Arab world was through violence, that participation in secular political processes was heretical and that people wanted and would cheer an Islamic regime. Over the past few months, millions in the Arab world have toppled regimes relatively peacefully, and what they have sought was not a caliphate, not a theocracy, but a modern democracy. The crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square did not have pictures of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri in their hands as they chanted for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

Polls around the Muslim world confirm that support for bin Laden has been plummeting over the past five years. As al-Qaeda morphed into a series of small, local groups, the only places it could mount attacks were cafés and subway stations — in other words, against locals. That turned the locals against al-Qaeda. Their "support" for radical jihadism had in any event always been more theoretical than real, a support for a romantic notion of militant opposition to the West and its domination of the modern world. And it was premised on the assumption that any violence would be directed against "them" (the West), not "us" (Muslims). Once the terrorism came home, even people in Saudi Arabia realized that they didn't want to return to the 7th century, and they didn't much like the men who wanted to bomb them back there.

Al-Qaeda is not like Hitler's Germany, which was a vast, rich country with a massive army. It never had many resources or people. Al-Qaeda is an idea, an ideology. And it was personified by bin Laden, a man who for his followers represented courage and conviction. Coming from a wealthy family, he had forsaken a life of luxury to fight the Soviet Union in the mountains of Afghanistan and then trained his guns on the U.S. He used literary Arabic, spoke movingly and tried to seduce millions of Muslims. Those who were duly seduced and joined the group swore a personal oath to him. Young men who volunteered for suicide missions were not dying for al-Zawahiri or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who planned the 9/11 attacks. They were dying for bin Laden. And with bin Laden's death, the cause and the man have both been extinguished. We will battle terrorists for many years to come, but that does not make them a mortal threat to the Western world or its way of life. The existential danger is over.

The nature of the operation against bin Laden spotlights a path for the future of the war on terrorism. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama can share the credit for bin Laden's death, as should many in the U.S. government and military. But it is fair to say that Obama made a decision to dramatically expand the counterterrorism aspect of this struggle. He increased the number of special operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quadrupled the number of drone attacks on al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan and devoted new resources and attention to intelligence gathering. (That is one reason why General David Petraeus is leaving his powerful position directing the war in Afghanistan to run the CIA.) This renewed focus paid off in many captures and kills before May 1, and it has finally paid off in the Big One. (See a gallery of Al-Qaeda's most infamous faces.)

While Bush certainly used counterterrorism to fight al-Qaeda, the signature element of his strategy was nation building. He believed that deposing one of the worst Arab dictators, Saddam Hussein, and delivering democracy to Iraq would shatter al-Qaeda's appeal. The theory was correct, as the Arab Spring has demonstrated: people in the Arab world want democracy, not dictatorship and not theocracy. But in practice it is a very hard task for an outside power to deliver democracy — which first requires political order and stability — to another nation. It is also a task for which militaries are not best suited. The U.S. armed forces have done their best in Iraq and Afghanistan but — despite huge costs in blood and treasure — the results in both nations are mixed at best. (See pictures of Navy SEALs in action.)

Counterterrorism, by contrast, is a task well suited for military power. It requires good intelligence, above all, and then the swiftness, skill and deadly firepower at which U.S. forces excel. The results speak for themselves. The U.S. has inflicted significant and substantial losses on al-Qaeda by decapitating its leadership and keeping the organization on the run, in hiding and in constant fear. It has been a more effective strategy and vastly less costly than trying to clear, hold and build huge parts of Afghanistan in the hope that order, stability, good governance and democracy will eventually flourish there.

Along the way, the efforts at nation building have tarnished the image of the American military. The world's greatest fighting force was shown to be unable to deliver stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, had to deal with scandals like the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and saw its soldiers losing their once high morale. May 1 changed all that. The image of a smart, wise and supremely competent U.S. has flashed across the globe. The lesson should be clear. An America that uses its military power less promiscuously, more intelligently and in a targeted and focused manner might once again gain the world's respect and fear, if not affection. And an America that can provide a compelling picture of a modern, open society will be a far more attractive model for Arabs than Osama bin Laden's vision of a backward medieval caliphate.