How long will Al Qaeda live beyond bin Laden? Lessons from Latin America.
A real-world example of why Al Qaeda could live well beyond Osama bin Laden, Latin America has found limited results from taking out leaders of deadly ideological insurgencies.
Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia
Latin America has generally heralded the death of Osama bin Laden, with presidents from Mexico to Peru issuing statements congratulating the US on the operation that brought down the world’s most wanted terrorist.Skip to next paragraph
But if this region's own history with deadly ideological insurgencies and organized crime is any example, Mr. bin Laden’s death won't alone spell the end of Al Qaeda, as the task of taking down such a group often requires targeting the many mid- and high-level commanders who control ground operations.
While governments tend to hail top take downs such as bin Laden and hold them up as proof of success, targeting a group's leadership has proven a mixed bag throughout Latin America.
“The neutralization of the leader of a criminal organization has never brought – as an immediate consequence – the end of the threat that it poses,” says Bogotá-based security analyst Alfredo Rangel, who has watched drug trafficking and rebel organizations in Colombia survive through the demise of numerous top chiefs.
The US has voiced optimism that bin Laden's death is a game changer.
“We’re going to try to take advantage of this opportunity we have now with the death of Al Qaeda's leader, bin Laden, to ensure that we’re able to destroy that organization,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said on NBC's Today show. “We’re determined to do so and we believe we can.”
In Colombia, which has been fighting a leftist guerrilla insurgency since the 1960s, President Juan Manuel Santos shared the view. “This is an important and convincing strike at global terrorism,” he said in a statement. It “demonstrates yet again that terrorists, sooner or later, always fall. In the fight against global terrorism there’s only one path to take: persevere, persevere, persevere."
But President Santos's remarks overlook his nation's limited success against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by targeting its leadership. “The FARC have a capacity to persist even after the death of their leaders,” says Mr. Rangel.
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The FARC, which like Al Qaeda is on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations, has been weakened by a sustained military and intelligence campaign that whittled the number of fighters from an estimated 18,000-20,000 in 2002 to about 9,000 today. That success has little to do with hitting top leaders (a strategy known as "decapitation"), says Rangel.