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The United States has killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and recovered his body, according to numerous media reports May 1 citing U.S. officials. U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an announcement on the subject. It is not clear precisely how bin Laden was killed or how his body was recovered, but the assertion that he is dead is significant.
Bin Laden had become the symbol of al Qaeda, even though the degree to which he commanded the organization was questionable. The symbolic value of his death is obvious. The United States can claim a great victory. Al Qaeda can proclaim his martyrdom.
It is difficult to understand what this means at this moment, but it permits the Obama administration to claim victory, at least partially, over al Qaeda. It also opens the door for the beginning of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, regardless of the practical impact of bin Laden’s death. The mission in Afghanistan was to defeat al Qaeda, and with his death, a plausible claim can be made that the mission is complete. Again speculatively, it will be interesting to see how this affects U.S. strategy there.
Equally possible is that this will trigger action by al Qaeda in bin Laden’s name. We do not know how viable al Qaeda is or how deeply compromised it was. It is clear that bin Laden’s cover had been sufficiently penetrated to kill him. If bin Laden’s cover was penetrated, then the question becomes how much of the rest of the organization’s cover was penetrated. It is unlikely, however, that al Qaeda is so compromised that it cannot take further action.
At this early hour, the only thing possible is speculation on the consequences of bin Laden’s death, and that speculation is inherently flawed. Still, the importance of his death has its consequences. Certainly one consequence will be a sense of triumph in the United States. To others, this will be another false claim by the United States. For others it will be a call to war. We know little beyond what we have been told, but we know it matters.