The Death of Osama bin Laden

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The Death of Osama bin Laden

by Craig Garaas-Johnson, News & Features Editor

On Sunday, May 1, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, leader of al Qaeda and the defacto symbol of terrorism for the Western world, was killed in his compound 35 miles from the Pakistani capital.

In a rare late-evening address, President Obama spoke to the nation: "Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."

Two teams of 12 SEALS searched the walled compound in Abbotabad for almost 40 minutes, through occasional firefights, all in an effort to catch the most wanted man in the world. Once their target was acquired, SEALS radioed back “Geronimo,” the code name for Bin Laden.

The President and his national security team watched the events unfold in real-time, with narration provided by CIA Director, Leon Panetta. When SEALS sent to coded message “Geronimo-E KIA,” a wave of relief passed through the Situation Room. The “E” stood for enemy, and “KIA,” for Killed In Action.

"The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda," said Obama.

Living with the existential threat of terrorism has become the defining characteristic of our time. For almost a decade, our news has been filled with warnings of terroristic plots to bring down planes, destroy our infrastructure, and upset the very fabric of society. The issues are complex—from the methods of prosecuting terrorists, to hardening targets, to even defining what constitutes an act of terrorism.

“The surge that President Obama began in 2009 has shown some results; the al Qaeda organization has been seriously damaged and I think this is just one more nail in the coffin.” -- Brian Urlacher, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration

What is clear is that most terrorist plots are heavy on symbolism, and understanding this helps us better identify the kinds of attacks they are likely to plan. These people are “true believers,” and striking symbolic targets—the largest buildings in the United States are a good example—makes a lot of sense from their point of view.

According to Paul Sum, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, Bin Laden’s death is a response equally heavy on symbolism. “It demonstrates that the U.S. has been able to follow up on its commitment it made to the American people, but to a larger extent, it was a commitment to projecting U.S. power into the world.”

However, the death of Bin Laden, while symbolic, is not without substance. His death will bring a sense of closure to many of the families of the more than 3,000 people killed, and the hundreds more wounded in the attacks of 9/11, among others. News of his death sparked spontaneous emotional outbursts of patriotism and reflection, with crowds forming outside the White House chanting and singing the Star Spangled Banner. Meanwhile, disbelief and vows of revenge popped up on jihadist Web sites.

However, some find it difficult to celebrate Bin Laden's death. "I come down on the side of finding it hard to celebrate the death of somebody, even if they are an enemy of the United States," says Brian Urlacher, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration. "In an ideal world, [Bin Laden] would have been arrested, ideally with the help of the Pakistanis ... and tried in the United States .... It's hard to look at this as a win for the rule of law, even if it is a win for U.S. Security."

Yet, with bin Laden's death, many feel there is a sense our country has turned a corner. "The Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaign has made quite a bit of progress in the last year," says Urlacher. "The surge that President Obama began in 2009 has shown some results; the al Qaeda organization has been seriously damaged and I think this is just one more nail in the coffin. The problem's not over, the conflict's not over, but it's breaking down in that region."

The death of Osama bin Laden won't stop the terrorists of the world from attacking us, but neither does it mean we should cower in fear. For the foreseeable future, asymetric attacks and battles between the U.S. and terrorist groups will continue. The U.S. is a huge target and groups with nihilistic worldviews, like al Qaeda, will continue to try and upset and damage us and our allies.

"There's always going to be a very small risk of terrorism and you can invest a lot of resources in trying to combat that risk or you can look to invest those resources somewhere else," says Urlacher. "Most of the time, for the vast majority of people, they are not willing to go and spend years, sometimes decades, living in a foreign country just so they carry out one spectacular attack. While there's always going to be that very small group ... most potential jihadists that are willing to fight and die for a cause, are willing to fight and die for causes that are local."

For now, it may be enough that our enemy lies broken and defeated. Killing Bin Laden is a defining moment in the Afghan War, and a cathartic moment in the consciousness of our country. There's no use telling people not to celebrate; the emotions they feel about the attacks of 9/11 are still too strong. Yet, we must remind ourselves that a threat remains.

"Though Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is not," Panetta said in a message to CIA employees. "The terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge him, and we must -- and will -- remain vigilant and resolute."

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