Osama Bin Laden's Death: Are we safe?

May 02, 2011

Osama Bin Laden is dead, but does that mean that we're safe? Juan Zarate, who served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism under President George W. Bush, will discuss national security threats after Osama Bin Laden's death.

I'm here and getting started now.  Thanks for joining me.

Two related questions: I always understood he was more radical and violent than bin Laden (if that's possible). If true, would bin Laden's death result in al-Zawahri taking over and al Qaeda (or what's left of it) becoming even more extreme? Second, al-Zawahri lacks the charisma and star power of bin Laden. Could al-Zawahri ever really replace bin Laden?

Ayman al Zawahiri, AQ's number 2, will no doubt take over the leadership of the core AQ.  He is ideologically committed to AQ's agenda, has been a vocal spokesperson for the movement over the years (especially recently in the wake of the Arab Spring), and has driven AQ's operational and strategic direction for some time.  That said, Zawahiri lacks the charisma and recognized likeability and mythology of UBL for the broader Sunni extremist movement.  A key question will be whether Zawahiri can galvanize the movement at this critical moment or if he will preside over the further splintering of AQ and its relevant platforms around the world.

Also, keep in mind that there are a cadre of committed AQ Core and related leaders who remain intent on attacking US interests and those of our allies.  Though AQ will suffer with the loss of UBL, this does not mean the group and its membership no longer present a danger.

Juan- Since terrorism did not start on 9/11, of course it won't end now that Bin Laden is dead. But isn't that beside the point? Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11, and for that reason alone he had to be brought to justice. And why worry about the terrorists reaction to this? They have been trying their best to get us for a long time. Bin Laden's death may increase their outrage, but it won't help their capabilities. We will always have to be vigilant, but I refuse to be afraid.

I think the death of UBL is a strategically important moment and closes a key chapter in the war on terror/AQ.  One cannot imagine the end of AQ-led terrorism without first ridding the scene of UBL.  There will be some who will be outraged or even inspired to act in the wake of UBL's death.  We need to remain vigilant.  That said, I think most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief in the hopes that this act will deflate the power, reach, and allure of the AQ movement.  UBL was losing popularity already, and many in Muslim communities around the world were alreaedy questioning the moral, theological, and strategic legitimacy of this movement.  This is not a moment to be afraid, but to take the strategic advantage of the loss of AQ's symbolic and strategic leader.

What effects could this have in Libya, Syria, Yemen, ...?

This is a good question.  I think AQ is at a strategic crossroads -- now with the loss of its leader but also because it is struggling to remain relevant in the wake of the Arab Spring.  AQ is banking on breathing space for its operatives and the inevitable disillusionment and discontent coming out of the revolutions to reignite its relevance (at least in the Arab world).  AQ could either begin its fade into ultimate decline or adapt via its regional organizations (as in Yemen and North Africa) to reassert itself.  There may be some violent jihadis who take inspiration and rage from the death of UBL, but there are others who are likely to see that UBL is no longer an untouchable ghost beyond the reach of America's power.  The demise of UBL may resonate deeply for years to come.

I am not sure I am 'happy' or 'jubilant' he is dead. Perhaps satisfied is a better word. In any event, I do not see this as really being impactful on the GWOT. It is nice Osama Bin Laden got his, but it does not change anything. Leadership for AQ has been diffusing for some time, partially because of the development of the philosophy of the movement and partially due to the US's success in killing high ranking members. Strategically I see little gain in this (though that is not to say I would wish it undone).

To me, the question is can we harness the Arab 'spring time' and help drive it to a better place?

I agree that AQ has morphed over time.  The AQ of 2011 is not the same as the one we encountered on 9/11.  I call it the AQ Hydra now -- with multiple heads to include the AQ Core in Pakistan and Afghanistan; its affiliates in places like Yemen, Central Asia, and North Africa; and those inspired by AQ who may not be affiliated officially (e.g., lone wolves).  The death of UBL won't rid the world of the threat from this Hydra, but it does close an important chapter in the war on terror by depriving the broader global movement of its founder and chief strategist.  Recall that it was UBL who innovated the notion of targeting the "far enemy" (US and the West) and the obligation of "defensive jihad" to defend fellow Muslims against the West's purported war on Islam.  Without UBL as the critical centerpiece for this movement, the broader AQ franchises and elements could fracture and begin to reshape their focus again on local issues (as was seen prior to the rise of AQ in the mid 1990s).  Though the terrorist threat doesn't go away tomorrow as a result of this action, the loss of UBL is a major step in constraining the operational and ideological reach of this movement.

Will the U.S. government start taking extra precautions to make sure we're safe?

The U.S. government has already begun to take precautionary steps to ensure our defenses are up against possible reprisals.  The State Department has issued warnings to American travelers, it has increased our security posture at Embassies and consulates around the world, and the homeland security and counter-terrorism communities are scouring for any information pointing to an attack.  President Obama has spoken about this concern, and I can guarantee you that he and the CT/national security community are doing everything possible to protect American lives, property, and our allies.  They want to ensure that AQ gains no benefit from the death of UBL.

How were the ISI involved in the raid-effort? How does this compare with the cooperation during your time in the White House? What are the implications for this relationship moving forward?

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan on counterterrorism is critical, but it is under a great deal of stress.  That relationship has led to real success in the past, but it has never been a perfect relationship by any stretch.  There have been times of deep tension between the intelligence and military services of each country, but this has become a critical time of deepening distrust -- in particular in the wake of the Raymond Davis affair. 

In this particular case, President Obama was clear.  This was an American operation without Pakistani involvement and with no pre-notification to their leadership.  The phone calls to President Zardari and others happened after the fact.  This signals both the great sensitivity of the operation but also a serious level of distrust with the Pakistanis.  Certainly, the Pakistanis will have to answer some tough questions as to why UBL was housed in a villa in Abbottabad, a settled part of Pakistan with plenty of Pak military and intelligence presence.  Bad intelligence, willful blindness, or complicity -- or some combination thereof -- may be to blame.  None of these is a good answer, which gives the United States some leverage now to repair the relationship on our terms and to push the Pakistani government to do more to root out AQ and Taleban leadership in their midst.

Will bin Laden's death affect AQ's finances? Or have his millions already been successfully tied up by the US and its allies?

This question is near and dear to my hear given my prior role at the Treasury to help run the campaign against terrorist financing after 9/11.  In general, AQ has been hurting for its finances -- which has reduced its ability to influence its regional membership and to train as aggressively and widely as it would like.  It is harder, costlier, and riskier today for AQ and its allies to raise and move money around the world due to measures taken.

As a result, AQ has had to share operatives and blend training as a result, while regional groups have had to adapt to other ways of making money for themselves (see, e.g., ransoms for hostages taken by al Qaida in the Islamic Magreb and drug trafficking by the same group).  The loss of UBL will affect AQ's finances, in part since his leadership has galvanized deep-pocket donors in the past.  With his passing, these demanding "investors" for AQ will hold back to see what happens next and may decide to support other causes of import, with no AQ nexus.  In general, the loss of UBL will hurt AQ's ability to fundraise in the long term, while the US and its allies continue to shut down the means by which terrorist groups raise and move money.

Is the Raymond Davis situation related in any way to the operation in which Bin Laden was killed?

I don't think there is any direct relationship between the two, in part since it has been reported that Raymond Davis was assigned to gather information about Lashkar e Tayyiba (vice hunting for UBL).  That said, the presence of Raymond Davis and others from the U.S. intelligence community in Pakistan underscores the steps the USG has been taking to gather information on terrorist groups and networks in Pakistan.  This revelation and the entire Davis affair has also acutely strained relations between the two countries' intelligence communities.

What is the response from other countries?

The response from other countries seems very positive at the news of UBL's death -- with the US being applauded by its allies.   There is no love lost for UBL around the world -- where he has slaughtered innocents from Africa to the Middle East to North America -- so that is reflected in official reactions from around the world.

There are some sympathies in pockets of populations around the world, where UBL has been lionized as a courageous revolutionary facing down the great superpower.  We may begin to see statements decrying this action -- via the Internet and otherwise -- from voices of those populations or groups.

Many of the official messages are sober in warning that this will not mean the end of terrorism.  

So, sir, considering that there is a high alert declared for American citizens all over the world, there must be some sort of attack that Washington is afraid of... If this were the case, what magnitude do you presume this attack would be?

I don't think we've seen or heard anything about a specific threat.  I think authorities are worried more broadly about the likelihood of some violent retribution/reaction to the death of UBL -- who has served as an inspirational figure for violent extremists around the world.  Keep tuned to what the Department of Homeland Security puts out via its new national warning system.  They'll be sensitive to how they use this for the first time.

I am assuming that the US is now able to search the compound where Bin Laden was hiding. I believe there were reports that it did not have phone or internet access, but that does not mean it will not have clues that can lead to other supporters.

Great point.  No doubt our special forces engaged in "sensitive site exploitation" -- meaning that they scoured the villa for documents, computers, files, receipts, and anything else of value.  They likely also spoke to those who were alive, gathering information about the inhabitants, visitors, and the villa.  They are likely doing everything possible now to gather data from whatever they grabbed during the search and hopefully are exploiting it to follow up any relevant leads.  This is a process that our special forces community honed in Iraq and have perfected in Afghanistan -- often with the help of law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

Under international law, was what the U.S. did legal?

Under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, the U.S. has declared that it is at war with AQ and has the right to self defense.  This means that it can kill or capture enemy leadership, in accordance with Congress' authorization for the use of military force in 2001 and the principles of self defense ensconced in international law and the UN Charter.  The Obama Administration has vigorously defended this principle in the context of the use of lethal force, and this episode is precisely why.  Some may argue that this appears to be an unlawful extrajudicial killing, but if you accept that we are operating under war-time principles and legal constructs, then the killing of the head of AQ is not only permissible but it's legal under international law.

Thanks for joining me today.  I'm sorry I couldn't get to all your questions but look forward to joining the Washington Post here again soon. Check me out now on CBSNews.com's webcast and later on the CBS Evening News.

In This Chat
Juan Zarate
Juan Zarate is a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Senior National Security Analyst for CBS News, and a national security consultant. Mr. Zarate served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from 2005 to 2009, and was responsible for developing and implementing the U.S. Government’s counterterrorism strategy and policies related to transnational security threats. Mr. Zarate was the first Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes where he led domestic and international efforts to attack terrorist financing, the innovative use of Treasury’s national security-related powers, and the global hunt for Saddam Hussein’s assets.

Mr. Zarate is a former federal prosecutor. He is the author of Forging Democracy, and a variety of articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, LA Times, and other publications. Mr. Zarate was a Visiting Lecturer of Law at the Harvard Law School (spring 2011). He is a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School and a former Rotary Fellow (Universidad de Salamanca, Spain). Mr. Zarate sits on several boards of advisors, including for the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
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