The UK Guardian has an interesting roundup of reaction to bin Laden’s death from across the Arab world. Major General Hussein Kamal of Iraqi intelligence told them, “Al-Qaeda is not one person anymore. I don’t expect that the killing of bin Laden will finish al-Qaeda here or in other countries. It will affect their morale, for sure. But it won’t end their organization.”
A banker in Cairo named Ayman Qhadari was even more pessimistic, and also a bit uncertain that bin Laden was really dead. “I hope it’s true, but even if it is, does it really mean that al-Qaeda is finished?” he asked. “There will be a million more men like him. There probably are.” It sounds like the “Elvis bin Laden” movement is already gaining steam, both here and abroad.
Contrary to Mr. Qhadari’s dark fears, there have never been more than a few hundred members of al-Qaeda around the globe. The exact number is tough to determine for obvious reasons, but intelligence analysts agree they’re several orders of magnitude short of “a million.” The entire purpose of terrorism is to allow a small, feral group to impose its will upon a much larger population.
Terror groups are defeated like any other military enemy: by breaking their morale. They, in turn, achieve victory by breaking the morale of their victims. Every conflict ends this way. The methods are what make terrorists a unique enemy. They use criminal atrocities to inflict massive damage to civilian morale, knowing they would swiftly be destroyed if they directly confronted professional soldiers.
Hiding among the civilian population means the civilized enemies of terrorists can inflict damage to their own morale by attacking them. That is the military significance of “collateral damage” – it creates strategically damaging uncertainty and doubt in the civilian political structure. (Dictatorships don’t care much about collateral damage, because they don’t have a civilian political structure.)
How does one go about breaking the morale of a terrorist enemy? As Major Kamal pointed out, al-Qaeda is highly decentralized. Osama bin Laden appears to have retained minimal operational control by the time of his death. Al-Qaeda will be shaken by the loss of their figurehead, but those hundreds of terrorist foot soldiers won’t throw in the towel because he’s gone.
That’s okay. Al-Qaeda is not a conventional military enemy. We won’t beat them by routing their troops from the field, and chasing them into the tall grass. We don’t have to demoralize every single terrorist operative. Frankly, most of them are both stupid and disposable.
We win by demoralizing the leadership. They’re not disposable. They certainly don’t see themselves that way, but it’s objectively true. Not many people have the cunning, resources, and connections to organize massive terror attacks. Not many can earn enough trust from a deeply paranoid organization to become a commander. It takes a good deal of time for a sharp low-level operative to matriculate through those levels of paranoia and become a terrorist officer. If promotion becomes more rapid and careless, the organization is soon infiltrated by intelligence operatives.
Osama bin Laden died from a close-range head shot, administered by a U.S. Navy SEAL inside a safe house built by Pakistani security forces, only 800 yards from their most important military academy. The significance of that will not be lost on people like al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose dreams are now haunted by the image of American intelligence officers extracting valuable data from all those prisoners and computers taken by the SEALs. Hopefully Zawahiri will soon have his own encounter with U.S. special forces, and the next guy in line gets to have those nightmares.
It may not be much harder for al-Qaeda to recruit new operatives today. Maybe it’s even a little easier, as they prey upon gullible chumps enraged by the great Sheikh bin Laden’s assassination. However, it just became harder to recruit leaders. That’s one of the reasons our victory in Abottabad is so important. It’s not a good day to be a top dog in al-Qaeda.