Two U of C terrorism experts praised President Barack Obama in a press conference downtown at the University’s Gleacher Center yesterday following the news of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death. The two then sat down for more personal remarks after the media briefing.
Jenna Jordan, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) at the Harris School of Public Policy who specializes in leadership decapitation of terrorist organizations, cautioned that bin Laden’s death is not in itself enough to destabilize Al Qaeda.
Jordan’s research points to three key variables in the effectiveness of leadership decapitation: the organization’s size, its age, and its type. Al Qaeda is a large, old, and religious organization, Jordan elaborated, which suggests that leadership decapitation will not itself be effective in stopping the organization.
Instead, bin Laden’s death may be counterproductive, generating support for the organization, fueling recruitment momentum, and prompting retaliatory attacks in the short-term, she said.
U of C political science professor Robert Pape agreed, describing the next few months as an opportunity for the United States to eliminate the threat of Al Qaeda.
“The question is, is [bin Laden’s death] actually going to weaken the group over time or not? And that’s up to us. It depends on what our next steps are. Our next steps should be to weaken the popular support that made Osama bin Laden popular in the first place,” Pape said.
Bin Laden rose to prominence not because he was an Islamic radical, Pape said, but because he represented opposition to large-scale deployment of U.S. ground troops in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1990s. To weaken support for Al Qaeda, Pape argued that the number one thing the government should do is begin major withdrawals of ground forces in Afghanistan. Pape argued this point in his 2010 book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.
“It’s really possible, if we do the right things in the next six to twelve months, to put the War on Terror behind us. Dick Cheney, right after 9/11, said Americans would never live without the fear of terrorism again in their lifetimes. He was wrong. It was up to us to do the right thing,” said Pape, who is also the director of CPOST.
Bin Laden’s death came at a time when Al Qaeda was already facing a blow from changes in U.S. foreign policy, Pape said. He credited Obama with policy that opposes, rather than supports, authoritarian regimes, a move which has generated momentum in destabilizing Al Qaeda’s base of support.
Characterizing the covert operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death as “virtually ideal,” Pape defended Obama as a careful leader.
Pape discussed the irony in recent criticisms of Obama for being too careful and slow-moving. “He got it through meticulous day-by-day, week-by-week planning to get it right. So it might look to others as dithering, but it’s actually deliberate, forceful steps to achieving the goal,” Pape said.
Pape noted that he had never met Obama in person and had been a Republican in the 1980s and ’90s. Since the War on Terror, however, Pape has supported Democrats, including Obama, because of what he considered better policy.
“[Bush] took his eye off the ball of getting Osama in order to go and conquer Iraq. And for years now I’ve argued this was a fundamental strategic mistake,” Pape said. “I’m afraid Bush, after all this huffing and puffing, all he did was make matters worse.”
U of C political science professor Charles Lipson, who did not attend the conference, also applauded the operation.
“[Bin Laden] was not killed by a drone or some routine air operation. The president himself ordered this daring raid and deserves credit for a decision that worked out so well,” Lipson wrote in an e-mail statement. “This moment is a triumph for America’s covert ops, intelligence gathering, and executive decision-making.”
Ultimately, Pape said, the challenge of making the most of the opportunity in the upcoming months does not detract from the impact of bin Laden’s death.
“President Obama has done more for America’s security in one day than President Bush did in eight years,” he said.