To give the devil his awful due, Osama bin Laden was the greatest terrorist of the modern age. He took what had been disparate, disorganized terrorist groups and reshaped them into a disciplined and immensely ambitious organization, al-Qaida, with the singular goal of waging jihad on the West in general and the United States in particular. Its terrorist prowess was never more evident than on that horrible day of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now that bin Laden is dead, the most pressing question we need to ask is: Will his death make a difference? It is, of course, symbolically important that the United States hunted down the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And it will have political ramifications for President Barack Obama, which I leave to others to debate.
But the thing that matters most right now is whether the world today is safer than it was on Saturday, when bin Laden was still among the living. Though it is not an easy question to answer, it seems to me that there are four areas where it ought to be asked:
THE ARAB SPRING
The commentariat was quick to note the delicious irony that bin Laden’s death coincided with the citizen uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere. The Arab Spring has shown that millions of Muslims have zero interest in the hard-line theocracy favored by al-Qaida. What they yearn for instead is freedom and democracy. Bin Laden’s death merely put an exclamation point on the fact that his influence in the region had diminished considerably in the decade since 9/11.
But Lawrence Wright, the author of “The Looming Tower,” a Pulitzer-Prize winning book about al-Qaida, goes a step further. He’s convinced that bin Laden’s death could help prevent the Arab Spring from sputtering out.
“As long as he was around, he created an alternative narrative,” Wright said. “When the moment comes that the democratic movement falters – and there always is such a moment – al-Qaida could say: We told you so. The fact that he is gone makes it more likely for the Arab Spring to complete its reformation cycle.”
THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
Ever since he came into office, Obama has insisted that our presence in Afghanistan was directly related to the ongoing threat from al-Qaida. Ten years in, though, the war has no end in sight and dwindling public support. Liberal groups like the Brave New Foundation are already saying that bin Laden’s death has “ended the rationale” for the war.
It’s not just liberals, either. James Lindsay, a senior vice president of that establishment bulwark Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that the president could use bin Laden’s death to say that America’s “goal has been achieved” – and use it as an excuse to wind down the war. Whether the president will take such a step is unclear. But it’s now at least feasible. Agencies