When the news hit that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan, analysts everywhere pointed out that he was no longer involved in Al Qaeda’s operations. Indeed, as I’ve written before, Al Qaeda itself no longer represents the same operational threat it once did. CIA Director Leon Panetta said last summer that the number of real Al Qaeda operatives had probably fallen to “50 to 100, maybe less.”
Nevertheless, Osama bin Laden’s death represents a huge victory in the fight against terrorism. Terrorism has been called “propaganda by deed”—a phrase popularized by 19th century anarchists—because it works only to the extent that it publicizes a cause and affects people’s behavior. The 9/11 attacks—as unbelievably tragic and horrible as they were—did little strategic damage to the U.S.’ productive capacity or its ability to project power around the world. But they turned the then largely unknown Al Qaeda into a household name, made the U.S. seem vulnerable, and helped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and people in the Middle East.
That’s why a symbolic victory matters. The fact that Osama bin Laden was still alive was a continuing symbol of the inability of the U.S. to capture or defeat him. Without bin Laden, Al Qaeda appears more like what it has become: a small, ineffectual group that has stood on the sidelines as real change sweeps the Middle East. That’s not to say that terrorism is no longer a problem. Exactly how bin Laden’s death will affect the various offshoots and affiliates of Al Qaeda is unclear. And it only takes a few terrorists to cause real harm. Nevertheless, with bin Laden gone, Al Qaeda is at long last likely to become increasingly marginal and irrelevant.