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The bin Laden effect: How the Al Qaeda leader changed America

In life, Osama bin Laden made a huge impact on the US, all in the name of preventing another 9/11. If he and Al Qaeda fueled antagonism between the US and the Muslim world, they also pushed America toward a better understanding of the Middle East.

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That's unlikely to change. Many terrorism experts stress that it is bin Laden who has been eliminated, not Al Qaeda, and that there are still Islamist extremists out there who want to attack targets in the US. Recent terrorist attempts may have failed, or even seemed hapless, but that's no guarantee the next bad guys won't be better trained.

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Still, the US has proved it has a long memory and worldwide reach. Perhaps bin Laden's fate will cause some would-be terrorists to consider another career. Should the US at least make the claim that what it used to call the "war on terror" has reached a turning point?

"Declaring victory sounds pretty good to me," says John Mueller, holder of the Woody Hays Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Dr. Mueller, in fact, has long argued that the lack of a domestic attack on the scale of 9/11 in the last decade shows that the terror threat to the US is overblown. It's his estimate that the cost of additional homeland security spending since 9/11 has been $1 trillion.

When the government wants to build, say, a bridge, it has to compile detailed cost-benefit studies, Mueller points out. But there's no such requirement for threat-level indications, airline security requirements, and other homeland security measures, which, he says, add up to huge amounts of money.

With bin Laden gone, the US has the opportunity to scale back its terrorism defense industry, says Mueller. "He certainly caused the US to massively overspend on the threat," he says.

Mueller's cost estimates may be on the high side – they include, for example, the opportunity costs of all the hours people spend waiting in security lines. But he is far from alone in calling for a recalibration of US security resources in the wake of bin Laden's death.

The Obama administration may be able to take advantage of the defense credentials it's earned from eliminating Public Enemy No. 1 by reducing defense spending at a time of fiscal stress, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in the May 2 conference call.

Bin Laden's elimination may "create the sense that the world is somehow a less dangerous place, which might ultimately make it more difficult for those who want to say defense spending is off limits to prevail in that argument," said Mr. Haass.

Bytes can be as deadly as bullets

Here's a thought: Bin Laden's success created the conditions for his own demise. It's not just that the 9/11 attack was so deadly that it led US leaders to vow to bring him to justice, whatever it took. It's also that the plot exposed deep rifts within the US intelligence community.

Stung that it had not prevented the attack, US intelligence healed those rifts – or healed enough of them to produce an espionage machine up to the task of sifting through a silo's-worth of leads to find the grains of data that led them to Abbottabad, Pakistan.

"We have significantly improved our intelligence collection, analysis, and coordination when it comes to foreign targets in foreign lands," says Amy Zegart, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Public Affairs and a Clinton administration National Security Council staff member.


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