National Security

Six Years Since Bin Laden’s Death, And His Group Is More Powerful Than Ever

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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A group of Navy SEALs successfully eliminated former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden six years ago this day, but his legacy of terrorism has carried on worldwide.

The raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound May 2, 2011, was the culmination of more than nine years of intelligence gathering and fighting al-Qaida in the Global War on Terror. The U.S. was involved in two wars and several smaller conflicts ranging from Somalia to the Philippines by the time bin Laden was shot dead. Today, the terrorist leader’s ideological spawn continues to threaten U.S. national security.

Al-Qaida appeared to be waning in the years after bin Laden’s death. The group was significantly disrupted in Afghanistan, while U.S. special operations forces and drones gave its members no safe haven. Most importantly, the group was prevented from engaging in another September 11 style attack on U.S. soil.

Today, the U.S. is still fighting terrorism in Iraq and is increasing its presence in Afghanistan where the Taliban, al-Qaida’s former hosts, are making a resurgence. Al-Qaida now boasts branches and associates in Yemen, Algeria, the Philippines, Malaysia and perhaps most importantly, Syria. The Islamic State, formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq, continues to run amok in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt, while its branch in Nigeria continues to pose a problem.

Al-Qaida has made no secret of its strategy to keep the U.S. involved in protracted, low-intensity wars.

“To bring down America we do not need to strike big,” said an article in al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine in November 2010. “In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect.”

Sometimes referred to as the “strategy of a thousand cuts,” bin Laden believed that he and his Mujahideen were responsible for toppling the Soviet Union in the 1980s by embroiling the Kremlin in a war of economic attrition. He felt the same could be done to the U.S.

The terrorist leader’s ideology has persisted well beyond his death, according to the Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence services consulting group.

“His brand of terrorism is now at least a shadow form of government—if not an open one—in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and tribal areas of Pakistan, with no realistic cause for optimism in either the short or long term,” said the Soufan Group’s intelligence brief Monday. “Even after 15 years of incredible effort, the strategy of denying sanctuaries to terror groups has given way to ‘sanctuary management’ at best.”

The effort to counter the group’s ideology, called countering violent extremism, has also proven ineffective, noted the consulting group, pointing to ISIS’s ability to recruit thousands of foreign volunteers as evidence.

Al-Qaida is now poised to retake its place as the world’s premier terrorist organization. U.S. operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq have rolled back the group’s territorial gains and have diminished its supply of foreign recruits. Meanwhile, al-Qaida affiliates like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Nusra Front) continue to gather support fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While bin Laden may be dead, but his ideology and legacy still remains a threat to U.S. national security.

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