BOSTON — The dramatic raid on a Pakistani compound that killed Osama bin Laden establishes a profound turning point in the global struggle against terrorism.
It marks the beginning of the post-9/11 world.
Now approaching 10 years since bin Laden authored the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, terrorism experts believe the U.S.-led effort to confront Islamic militancy around the globe will move away from the blunt instrument of conventional war to sharper-edged intelligence operations that can allow this kind of precise mission to succeed.
It remains to be seen exactly how and when this strategic shift will play out, but for terrorism experts today it is all about the final assessment of the meaning of the life and now death of Osama bin Laden.
For bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire who became the most wanted man in the world before dying at age 53, the journey toward Al Qaeda and its toppling of the World Trade Center twin towers began 18 years ago.
That was February 1993, when he inspired a cell to carry out the first, botched attack on the World Trade Center. It was a relatively crude truck bombing which damaged the parking garage and killed six people, leaving the building shaken but still standing.
That event motivated bin Laden in the mid-1990s to turn his full attention and his financial resources to establishing a theological underpinning, as warped as it was, and a clearly defined mission that was as grandiose — and delusional — as restoring the caliphate of Islam’s golden age by fighting a war against the infidels of the West.
The newly formed Al Qaeda carried out its first big attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Then in 2000, it struck the USS Cole in the Port of Aden in Yemen.
But it was the crystal clear morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when America and the world truly recognized the dark depths of the movement.
Year after year, the U.S. military and the intelligence community failed to bring bin Laden to justice. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton tried to take him out in 1998, but he escaped a series of distant cruise missile attacks. Then the U.S. military literally had bin Laden in its sights in December 2001, in the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, but he slipped away into the rugged terrain of the Hindu Kush and into Pakistan.
The American response to 9/11 has gripped the country in two costly wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. After expending blood and treasure — that counts well over 1 million lost lives and well into the hundreds of billions of American tax payers’ dollars — experts believe the killing of bin Laden may allow for an even more rapid drawdown of forces in these two wars. That troop withdrawal is already well underway in Iraq and it is expected to begin in July in Afghanistan. That is, if the U.S.-led military surge of troops can effectively degrade the Taliban and turn over security of the country to Afghan forces, U.S. military officials say.
For now, this much is clear: With the death of bin Laden, Al Qaeda will inevitably be changed.
Through all the years of its existence it has always morphed and metastasized, but now it will be changed more profoundly and more permanently. There is great hope in the national security community that this will prove a fatal blow to Al Qaeda, which has become more of an idea or a movement than it is a formal organization with a hierarchy.
But in the short-term there is an enhanced fear in the national security community that Al Qaeda will need to reassert itself, a dead man kicking and gasping to cling to life. And so there will be stepped up security in the coming months and a vigilance that will continue, these officials say.
“Al Qaeda is fragmented and weakened, but it will likely seek to demonstrate its relevance in the next few months,” said Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden.”
“I would say it is still resilient,” he added.
Michael Scheuer, who was the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and the author of the new book titled “Osama bin Laden,” agreed that there is grave concern about the short-term.
“I think it’s very likely that over time we will see an Al Qaeda counter-punch, not specifically to avenge bin Laden, but to show that Al Qaeda still is on the ground and still can hurt the United States,” said Scheuer on ABC News.
Scheuer has been a persistent critic of the national security establishment for failing to provide adequate resources in terms of troops on the ground and particularly in terms of intelligence assets to bring bin Laden to justice.
He said that the Obama administration’s surge and shifting of intelligence capabilities from Iraq to Afghanistan was critically important and has now been proven successful.
“We need to have more and better intelligence to continue to succeed,” he said.
William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, said: “From a strategic point of view, this is a very important turning point, a game changer in how we look at the war against extremism.”
“We’re at our best when we are focused and on the offensive against Al Qaeda as we have been here. Smart and strong,” said Martel.
In 1993 the thick, black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center parking garage marked the first time Osama bin Laden appeared on the radar screen of the American intelligence community.
That was the first World Trade Center bombing, a botched plot by what seemed to be a rag-tag group of taxi drivers brought together by a blind Egyptian cleric in Jersey City. The truck bomb they parked in the garage was intended to take down the towers. Instead it left a five-story crater in the parking garage and killed six people and led to the conviction of the militant Islamists from Egypt, Sudan and the West Bank who attempted to carry it out.
At that point no one — not the FBI or the CIA or the NYPD Counterterrorism taskforce or the journalists covering the incident — had any idea that this crude attempt was the beginning of a nascent movement that would become known as Al Qaeda.
It was not until many months after the smoke had cleared from the World Trade Center, that there was a brief report on the inside pages of The Washington Post. It reported that a scion of the Saudi construction magnate, Muhammad bin Laden, may have helped to finance the bombing in lower Manhattan that did not succeed in toppling the World Trade Towers.
But out of that failure was born bin Laden’s avowed determination to marshal his forces to attack the United States in what he called a “jihad,” or “holy war.” His next assault was the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998.
Bin Laden spent years funding and developing the expertise to carry out the hijacking of four passenger jets which would be used as suicide-piloted missiles to attack at the heart of American financial and military might.
Two planes struck and toppled the Twin Towers. Another plane slammed into the Pentagon. A fourth suicide pilot was overpowered by passengers and the plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and America responded with two wars.
Bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son and 17th child of more than 50 children who were born to his billionaire father by several wives. Osama, whose name in Arabic means “the young lion,” grew up amid the privilege and entitlement reserved for the Saudi royal family. Although not royalty themselves, the bin Laden family was an extremely close and trusted clan in the House of Saud.
The young bin Laden was radicalized in his college years, according to research by Peter Bergen, the author of “Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret Life of Osama bin Laden,” at the King Abdul-Aziz University where he fell under the tutelage of the Islamic scholar Muhammad Qutub. He was the younger brother of Sayyid Qutub, the radical Islamic thinker from the Wahabbi, or Salafist, branch of Islam. Sayyid Qutub is widely seen as the intellectual founding father of modern Islamic militancy and its call to action to topple the corrupt, Westernized regimes of the Muslim world.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden was in the early wave of international volunteers who went to fight alongside the U.S.-backed Afghan “mujahadeen,” or freedom fighters. With Saudi Arabia’s blessing, bin Laden funded and facilitated a group of volunteer fighters who came to be known as “the Afghan Arabs.” After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s and the Berlin Wall fell, the United States, largely abandoned its support for the “mujahadeen” and its supporters.
Afghanistan fell into a brutal civil war in the early 1990s. During that time, bin Laden regrouped with his followers in Sudan and began to give shape to his movement. And that was where he was living in 1993 when reports began to surface that he may have helped to fund the first World Trade Center bombing.
But the idea was quickly dismissed by high-level national security officials at the time who said that bin Laden since the early 1980s assisted the U.S.-backed “mujahadeen” and was seen as an ally more than an enemy. At least so it seemed at the time.
Back then, I was a reporter for the New York Daily News covering the story of the World Trade Center bombing just like we covered other crimes in New York. And so I followed the trail of the suspects to the mosque in Jersey City where Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was their spiritual mentor and then to another mosque in Brooklyn.
The Daily News sent me to Egypt, Pakistan, the West Bank and ultimately to Sudan, where one of the suspects was from. There in Sudan, my translator and researcher informed me that this man, Osama bin Laden, was holding forth at what was known as the Islamic Conference at The People’s Hall in the center of Khartoum.
At the hall was a 6-foot-4 Saudi with flowing white robes who was referred to simply as the “Emir.” He was surrounded by Egyptian advisers and protectors. I couldn’t get near him, but would later learn that he was Osama bin Laden.
Looking back many years later, it became clear that at that conference and others that would follow, bin Laden was assembling a prequel to what was to be known as Al Qaeda. I had no idea then that this would be a story that I would cover for the next 18 years.
By the mid 1990s, this movement known as “Al Qaeda,” which is Arabic for the base, would develop a formal ideology and a mission to fight a global “jihad,” or “holy war,” against the infidels of the West, the “Zionists and Crusaders,” as bin Laden called them.
All of those dreams are over now for bin Laden. They are drifting into the depths along with his body which the U.S. interned at sea after he was killed in the heavily-fortified, walled compound where he had been hiding — where, as Obama put it, “justice has been done.”