The hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan is winding down. American troops now go days at a time without finding Al Qaeda fighters. Disappeared, too, is their leader, Osama bin Laden.
Even if military operations end in Afghanistan, it is too soon to dismiss Mr. bin Laden. Whether he is on the lam or dead, his end will not be the finish of his brand of international terrorism.
Bin Laden, executive terrorist, was perhaps still is a first-rate innovator. Years of hard police work lie ahead to dig out the hidden machinery of international political violence he implanted via the Al Qaeda network. Decades, perhaps generations, of intelligent cultural outreach will be necessary if his special formula for isolating Muslims and enlisting them in a war with everything non-Islamic is to lose out to comity.
It may help in the long slog ahead if we understand a bit more what makes bin Laden and his associates stand out.
It starts with scale. In the past, conventional terrorist groups like Hizbullah in the Mideast, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, or the Basque separatists in Spain focused mainly on local issues and audiences. Their international presence, such as it was, funneled money and sympathy back into home-grown struggles.
Bin Laden thought big. Building on his years of covert fighting to undermine the Soviet attempt to control Afghanistan resistance funded by the US, Arab leaders, and others as part of the final armed struggle of the cold war bin Laden expanded into other fights. Recruits were shuttled through Afghanistan for training and combat experience by the tens of thousands. In the 1990s, these well-trained and combat-experienced "Afghanis" began to pop up in Bosnia, Algeria, Southeast Asia anywhere that local troubles offered the Islamists a toehold.
But local causes cannot fuel a global campaign. To work at a superterrorist level, bin Laden and his associates created a fundamentalist message able to resonate with Muslims of all stripes and cultures. Even though the bin Laden line is well outside the mainstream of Islam, moderate Muslim religious leaders have not yet successfully countered the populist appeal of his ersatz religious edicts. "Bin Laden-ism" is connecting to a very broad spectrum of Muslims, including many of the well-educated and prosperous.
The ultimate measure of a fighter is the size of his foe. Some years into his career, bin Laden decided to tackle all the big game at once: Arab leaders, the US, Israel, and everyone else who blocked the path to a bin Laden-designed future.
Taking a terrorist group to war with that mega-enemy required several organizational innovations. The traditional terrorist group model had to be scaled up for global operations. Global operations needed a global network able to interconnect with dozens of local organizations. Under powerful counterattack, the organization needed to become more secretive, more conscious of its internal security.
One of bin Laden's innovations is no-credit killing. Traditional terrorist groups have taught us their global audience and pool of candidate victims to expect claims of responsibility for sneak attacks. By insisting on "credit" for mayhem, the terrorists ensure that we appreciate their commitment to violence as the path to improvement in our general welfare.
No such claims come from bin Laden. Apparently intending to deflect superpower retaliation, the Al Qaeda network has evolved a tight, no-fingerprints policy as it plans and executes strikes.
The bin Laden formula for superterrorism appears to include sophisticated communications and elaborate chains of businesses, some criminal, some seemingly straight. The scaled-up Al Qaeda network has a capacity for what a business executive would term strategic control for tailoring itself, its workforce, and its "products" to the changing "marketplace."
In wartime the contestants at least the successful ones rapidly adapt to the changing dynamics of the battlefield. Under intense attack, bin Laden's expanded network likely continues to evolve.
New, younger leaders often emerge in combat. Whether bin Laden himself is still at the helm may now matter less than the fact that other entrepreneurs are likely to carry his methods forward into even newer forms.
How should we the US and its allies respond? Clearly, we need to be inventive ourselves. In Washington there is talk about creating new kinds of military units that can move as secretly and as nimbly as the terrorists.
Mimicking Al Qaeda may not be the best strategy. Top generals sometimes win battles by bypassing the enemy army and seizing the objective with less bloodshed. Our objective is a civil, democratic world.
Rather than trying to outdo bin Laden with spreading our own covert organizations and secretive methods around the world, perhaps we should be moving forward from Afghanistan with a campaign that learns how to smother bin Laden and Al Qaeda with our most powerful tool open, democratic, collaborative societies.
Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes about contemporary war, and strategies for peacebuilding.