Obviously it was five years ago today (technically; he was reportedly killed very early in the morning on May 2, local time) when Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in Abbottabad.
It’s late and I’m writing this to avoid paying attention to the Penguins-Capitals game, which is driving me crazy. And I can’t imagine anybody who reads this blog isn’t familiar with the official story in at least the most basic terms. So instead of rehashing that story, or the debate over its veracity, I thought maybe I’d just ask a question about the state of the world and the War on Terror since Bin Laden’s departure: are we all better off since he was killed?
In one sense, that’s an easy question. Osama bin Laden was unquestionably a bad guy who was responsible for a lot of needless death and suffering in his lifetime, and one fewer of those kinds of people in the world can’t be a bad thing.
But where it gets more complicated is that I think you can draw a line–maybe not a straight solid line, but a curvy dotted one–between the rise of ISIS and Bin Laden’s death. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was already a big problem for Al-Qaeda Central long before ISIS was a gleam in anybody’s eye, but they were ultimately kept in check, and in the fold, by the force of Bin Laden’s authority. When he was removed from the picture and replaced with the unquestionably weaker and less respected Ayman al-Zawahiri, it suddenly became conceivable that a local amir like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might tell Al-Qaeda Central to go f itself instead of obeying its orders. And ISIS has killed a hell of a lot of people, in case you missed it, far more than Al-Qaeda ever killed or would ever countenance killing–Bin Laden, by most accounts, was at least reluctant to take actions that might produce large scale civilian Muslim casualties.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is still there and still remains at least as big a long-term problem as ISIS from the standpoint of potential terrorist activity around the world. Al-Qaeda Central is kind of superfluous at this point, but several of its regional branches, like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are quite active and often run by men, like AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who give Baghdadi a run in the psycho-sadist department. Jabhat al-Nusra is a major player in the Syrian rebellion and, to the extent that it’s working alongside rebel units that are receiving US aid, may be receiving American weaponry courtesy of Pentagon and CIA programs to arm those rebels. It’s not clear that Bin Laden still had, or could have had, a very active operational role before he was killed, so if he were still alive Al-Qaeda might look exactly the same as it does now anyway. But who knows?
This is a purely academic discussion and you won’t catch me regretting Bin Laden’s death or wishing he were still around. But I think it’s an interesting question nonetheless.