The most obvious question today is: Is America safer?
The death of one man, even as important as bin Laden, is far less important than the broader geostrategic questions of regional politics, and the issue of government-sanctioned safe-haven. Objectively, al Qaeda posed the greatest threat to America when it had a state-sponsored sanctuary, whether in 1993 when it was being run out of Sudan and executed the first WTC attack, or in 2001 when it had the support of the Taleban and finally succeeded in bringing down the twin-towers.
Even if Ayman al-Zawahiri can take control of al Qaeda, it will not pose as great a threat to America as it has in the past, unless it can once again have free run of a nation to reconstitute its former infrastructure. Now it will be up to the President's team of Petraeus, Panetta and Lt. Gen. Allen to ensure that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan become that sanctuary.
In the age of irregular warfare that has been the reality since September 11th 2001, measuring victory has mostly proven difficult and at times politically contentious. No one can, however, argue with last night's news. Osama bin Laden, the deadliest terrorist murderer of the modern age has been finally killed by the forces of the United States of America. "Justice has now been done," as President Obama commented.
This war, however, is never going to end like WWII ,with a formal surrender by our adversary, or with the signing of a cease fire or a formal peace settlement. Our enemy is not a nation with a government or regular military forces. Some have even said that terrorism cannot be defeated, simply suppressed; and in the last decade, America has been successful at suppressing al Qaeda.
After the swift removal of the Taleban regime, bin Laden and his central command were quickly forced to go on the run. Since then, it is clear that despite providing training and inspiration to potential terrorists, such as the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, al Qaeda's capacity to plan and execute mass-casualty attacks similar to 9/11 has drastically been diminished after it lost its base of Afghanistan. If we also look at the quality and success rate of attacks planned against the United States, al Qaeda seems to be weak: only Major Nidal Hasan's mass shooting at Fort Hood resulted in deaths on US soil. Does that mean we can write-off al Qaeda, and that bin Laden's death means we can finally relax? Not yet.
Al Qaeda was created by the uniting of the Mujahedeen Service Bureau (MAK), which had recruited Arabs to fight to Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Egyptian terrorist group, Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The EIJ had been created to destroy the "apostate government" in Cairo, and was headed by an Egyptian MD and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri has, since the joining of forces, been bin Laden's deputy in al Qaeda, but his death was not reported on Sunday night. This is important, as in recent years, especially on the jihadi internet fora which are now so frequently used for the spread of Salafi Jihadism, it has been Zawahiri, not bin Laden, who was the ideological face of the movement. If he was not killed on Sunday, the successor to bin Laden is a given.
Therefore, although al Qaeda is organizationally weakened, it can ideologically survive its founder's death. In fact, the strain of violent fanatical Islam upon which al Qaeda was built was not founded by bin Laden, or anyone of his generation, but predates even the Muslim Brotherhood's creation in the 1920s.
In the weeks that follow, the question will be: How will the subscribers to al Qaeda around the world react to the news of the death of its self-appointed and charismatic leader, bin Laden? Fortunately, even if a handful of bin Laden's ideological followers initiate cells themselves, in what author and former CIA operative Marc Sageman has called "Leaderless Jihad," they will most likely lack the knowledge and training to do serious harm to the security of the nation.
In the meantime, Osama bin laden will never kill again.