The death of Osama bin Laden is a massive symbolic victory for the United States; it also provides a degree of closure to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and other attacks propagated by al Qaeda across the world. The man responsible for so much death, destruction, and radicalization has finally been brought to justice.
It is still unclear what the long-term impact of this event will be. What is almost certain is that bin Laden’s demise will not be decisive in defeating the al Qaeda network. The network has long since worked to make itself immune to the death of one of its top leaders and bin Laden was probably not involved in the day-to-day running of the organization or the execution of plots. There is a ready replacement for bin Laden in the form of his top lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri—although Zawahiri is not as accepted in the wider organization as bin Laden was, and his accession may exacerbate tensions within the group.
While the death of bin Laden is a significant accomplishment and a definite blow to the morale of the al Qaeda network, especially given bin Laden’s central position, not only in the leadership but also in the legend of the organization, his death does not absolve policy makers of the responsibility to pursue and aggressively take on al Qaeda. In the short term, any number of militant Islamist groups may attempt to carry out terrorist attacks to avenge the death of their spiritual leader. In the long term, al Qaeda central in Pakistan and its affiliates across the world, for example al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb, remain powerful, and will continue to plot against the United States and its allies. They need to be ruthlessly dismantled.
The death of bin Laden should also not be taken as an excuse or an opportunity to wind down American involvement in Afghanistan. Doing so would display dangerous ignorance of al Qaeda’s staying power. Leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban on the pretext that Osama bin Laden, the “primary target” of U.S. efforts in the region, has been eliminated, would provide al Qaeda the second wind and breathing space it would need to truly reconstitute itself and regain or exceed the ability to threaten the world it possessed on 9/11.