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.

AP Photo/John Kehe staff illustration
A boy walks past a large American flag in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 13. The flag was recovered from ground zero after the 9/11 attacks. This is part of a special report in the May 16 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Osama bin Laden's body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet, and placed in a weighted bag. A Navy officer made religious remarks that were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. Then a board tipped up and the body slipped the few feet from a lowered aircraft carrier elevator into the sea. In moments it was gone.

For the United States of America the question now may be whether an era that began on 9/11 ended as the eddies stilled and the ocean closed over the corporeal remains of Al Qaeda's leader.

In life, Mr. bin Laden made a tremendous impact on the US. There's no denying that. The devastation and deaths he orchestrated 10 years ago led the nation to spend more than a trillion dollars, by one estimate, to erect a homeland security apparatus alone.

US leaders have pursued two Middle Eastern wars, wiretapped citizens without warrants, forced everyone to take off their shoes at the airport, and poured water down the faces of detainees strapped to a board – all in the name of preventing another 9/11.

Did bin Laden succeed in luring the US and the Muslim world into greater mutual antagonism? Perhaps. Yet the bin Laden decade may also have produced an important shift in the horizons of America's interests. The US government has poured money and people into trying to understand the Middle East. At the least this may help the nation adjust as Arab street revolutions burst from the chrysalides of old regimes to remake the region.

Debate over civil liberties in a time of war seared Washington, yet helped define American values for a new age. US intelligence failed to stop the attacks of 9/11, but it remade itself into a more efficient machine for an era when timely information may count as much as military firepower.

Yes, bin Laden was mostly a symbol of Al Qaeda when the US finally caught him, and the decentralized organization he inspired survives. But symbols can be important. His removal may make it easier for the US to ease away from terrorism-centric foreign- and national-security policies. And with their bearded bogeyman gone, Americans may realize not that they have less to fear, but that their fear of what he represented had begun to subside long ago.

"What this really does in some ways is allow many Americans some degree of closure and give us a chance to move slightly past the incredibly fraught, incredibly strange, and heated decade that we have just gone through," said Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, in a May 2 Council on Foreign Relations conference call for reporters.

Can we put bigger shampoo bottles in our carry-ons?

Bin Laden's most obvious effect on America may be this: A generation has grown up with no memory of ever walking unchecked onto an airplane, or of greeting an air traveler at the gate. The institution of security to eliminate soft targets has cost billions and changed the face of the nation. Remember when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House used to be open to autos?

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.

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.

As described by Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta, the intelligence operation that found bin Laden involved CIA agents, National Security Agency satellites, and Defense Department special ops forces, all working together over a period of years to patiently assemble fragmentary information. It was a model operation of the sort modern warfare may require.

In today's world, bytes can be as deadly as bullets, says Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Just look at the bin Laden operation itself. The longest and most difficult part of the attack was finding the Al Qaeda leader in the first place. The assault on his compound was not easy, but it required only a few dozen personnel with relatively light weapons.

"In the cold war, we didn't need a lot of actionable intelligence. We knew where the Soviet Army was – what we needed was firepower," says Mr. Nelson. "In this war against Al Qaeda, we need a lot of intelligence. We don't need a lot of firepower."

That said, the US intelligence community remains far from perfect. There is still a divide between foreign intelligence operations and their domestic counterparts, says Ms. Zegart, whose book "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11" was published in 2007.

"I would argue we are still spying blind when it comes to the domestic side," she says. "We still have no domestic threat picture ... and we have no clear intelligence requirements for domestic counterterrorism."

Did bin Laden move our moral compass?

Bin Laden's US legacy may involve more than longer lines at airports. Since 9/11 the US has made a series of moves whose side effects include the erosion of civil liberties at home (warrantless wiretapping) and increased the harshness of treatment for terrorist suspects abroad (waterboarding and other tough interrogation techniques; indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba).

These things were at times controversial within the government itself. During the Bush administration, ferocious interagency battles erupted over what some saw as the torture of prisoners to try to get them to talk. They have also been controversial in the broader US context – and remain so, to some extent.

Proponents of harsh interrogation tactics have used the bin Laden operation to argue that they were right all along. There is some indication that a nugget of initial information in the chain that led to the Al Qaeda leader may have come from a detainee subjected to waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, or some other harsh technique, they point out.

"Enhanced interrogation techniques helped produce information that may have led to the takedown of bin Laden.... So there's no question but that the CIA interrogation techniques have proved very, very valuable," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia in a May 4 Fox News interview.

Critics of harsh interrogation tactics point out that the story remains unclear as to which prisoner said what, and why, and how much it mattered. They also say this argument should not be just about short-term efficacy, but morality as well.

Bin Laden wanted to shock the US into overreaction, so as to divide it internally and from the rest of the world, runs this point of view. "We have just buried an enemy who cannily recognized that the only power right now capable of bringing down America is America. He sought to successfully use us against us, and he was for too long successful to too great a degree," wrote David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace and director of the international advisory firm Garten Rothkopf, in his blog on Foreign Policy magazine's website May 2.

Yet profound deviations from American moral norms occurred in previous conflicts. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (protection against unlawful imprisonment). Franklin D. Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. To some extent, the US public accepted these measures as necessary during conflict. That does not mean the US moral compass permanently swerved.

The same process may be at work here. "I suspect over time bin Laden's impact on ... civil liberties will kind of diminish," says Nolan McCarty, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

The USA Patriot Act, which governs wiretapping and other antiterror tools, was substantially softened when it was reauthorized in 2005, says Dr. McCarty. When it comes up for reauthorization again, it may be softened still more. "Things Americans were willing to accept [in the wake of 9/11] will seem more onerous over time," says McCarty.

Clash of civilizations

One of bin Laden's main aims was to produce mutual antagonism between the US and Muslim worlds. Did he succeed?

In a larger sense, he probably did not. US leaders continue to insist that their target is extremism, not a religion. President Obama expressed that view once again in his May 1 announcement of bin Laden's death.

But over the last decade, negative views of Islam have become common in the US, if not the majority view. One example: the recent debate over whether the House Homeland Security Committee should have held a hearing into extremist recruitment in the American Muslim community.

Many Democrats and US Muslim groups argued that this hearing was a form of racial profiling, and should be expanded to include other groups. But just over half of respondents to a March 9 Gallup poll believed otherwise, and thought the hearings should be held.

The same poll found that 36 percent of Americans – a substantial slice – believe that Muslims living in the US are too extreme in their religious beliefs. Half of all Republicans held this view. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said US Muslims are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Fifty-four percent said they are not.

The death of bin Laden could become a pivot point for US officials to try to ease the antipathy to Islam at home and improve the image of the US in the Muslim world. In particular, it might allow the US to move more forcefully to align itself with the Arab Spring street revolutionaries who are remaking civil societies throughout the Middle East.

Violent extremist groups have been marginalized in many of those upheavals, notes Seyom Brown, holder of the John Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He says that's something the US should continue to emphasize publicly. "The bin Laden episode provides us with the opportunity to differentiate between those who are our enemies and those who are our friends," says Dr. Brown.

Is it time to stop being scared?

Ten years on, the images of the 9/11 attacks remain icons of American history. But the fear engendered by those bolts from the blue faded long before US Special Forces rappelled into a sleeping Pakistani compound.

Look at it this way – in October 2001, 46 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll said that terrorism was the biggest problem facing the nation, the highest such ranking ever. Five years later, when asked the same question, 11 percent of respondents put terrorism at the top of the national problem list. By September 2010, only 1 percent did so – a result much more in line with Gallup's pre-9/11 results.

One big reason for this fade is that there haven't been any successful terrorist attacks on US soil in that period, of course. Concern blips up anytime a thwarted plot, such as the 2009 "Christmas Day bomber" incident, becomes public.

But one major aim of terrorists is to create fear – and bin Laden had largely ceased to terrify the US public years ago.

This doesn't mean Americans aren't worried. Sixty-seven percent of respondents to a new Pew Research poll said they are at least somewhat concerned that the killing of bin Laden will lead to a retaliation attack. The point is that 10 years after 9/11, the threat of terror appears to be part of the nation's new normal. It is something the US lives with.

"Over the longer term – unless there is a big major terrorist event – the issue of terrorism won't continue to be an important component of American politics," says McCarty of Princeton.

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