What is the “value” of bin Laden’s death?
Someone ask me that and it set me to thinking. I’ve concluded that there is (and was) more value in his death than if we’d taken him alive.
Let me expand on that.
As we all know, he’d been holed up in that fortress cum “mansion” for 6 years with no land line or internet connection – so he was dependent on trusted couriers for news of the organization he’d founded and had little ability to influence the day to day operations of al Qaeda. Obviously he would have still been a valuable intelligence asset, but not quite as valuable as one might think. I get the impression that bin Laden’s real value was that of figurehead – that as long as he lived, his existence continued to demonstrate to his followers how powerless the “great Satan” really was. Every day he drew breath, he rubbed in the fact that he could take 3,000 lives in a single day and the US couldn’t even take his.
With each video or audio clip he had smuggled out of his lair and posted among jihadi sites, he tweaked the nose of the US and inspired his jihadist followers. His stature grew with each tweak. His survival helped him sell the “righteousness” of his cause because he could claim the protection of his god as the reason he was still untouched.
Bin Laden, given his experiences prior to 9/11, honestly believed that the US was too decadent and cowardly to ever take real action against he and his followers. He’d tried to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, did bomb Kohbar Towers and two African embassies as well as attacking the USS Cole. In all case the reaction was pitifully inadequate. He also believed we didn’t have the fortitude or courage to take casualties and stick it out for the long run. His planning got more ambitious. He, like many throughout history, badly underestimated his foe.
His first indication of his future fate came with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Hussein shared bin Laden’s beliefs about the US and found himself to be horribly wrong. Not only did we destroy his regime, we were relentless in his pursuit, finally capturing him months after the culmination of combat operations in Iraq. He went to the gallows a thoroughly defeated man.
Bin Laden didn’t expect to have to live as he’s had too these past 6 years. He believed at some point soon after we invaded Afghanistan we’d tire of the combat deaths and the commitment and leave. He felt his beliefs about the US would be vindicated. But not only did we stay in Afghanistan, we invaded Iraq and stayed there as well. And when it was clear we were going to be successful there, the first realization that he was dead wrong about the US had to dawn on him. To quote Admiral Yamamato, he had awakened a sleeping giant with his 9/11 attacks, and that giant wasn’t going to roll over this time and go back to sleep.
The Sunday operation that led to his death was the culmination of years upon years of effort to find the man. It was a relentless pursuit. It cost us lives. It took a lot of money. It took a lot of time. But when that Navy SEAL pumped two rounds into bin Laden’s head, he not only killed bin Laden, but he killed forever the narrative bin Laden had built up among his followers for years.
No longer could his followers take comfort in the belief that the US was a decadent, cowardly paper tiger. Iraq and 10 years in Afghanistan had blown that myth away. No longer could his followers believe that his survival demonstrated the righteousness of their cause. He was now fish food.
More important was the message his death sent to the entire jihadist community – something his capture couldn’t do – it may take years, lives and money to find you, but we will find you. And when we find you, we will kill you.
That’s an incredibly powerful and important message to send. Bin Laden’s death was the very best way to send it. It will reverberate throughout the jihadist community and the hopeful result is a further lessening of al Qaeda’s influence and a peeling away of the less committed among that community. It is clear that his death was a greater “value” for the US that was his capture.
Hats off to all those who made it happen. As someone said, “5.1.11 is the day we got even”. And the jihadist community will remember it, and hopefully its lesson, just as we remember 9/11.