"[The Russians’] worst misfortune was his birth... their next worst his death."
Winston Churchill, on the death of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the USSR
On May 2, 2011 (Pakistan time), American special forces conducted a raid on a resident near Abbottabad, Pakistan, that ended with the fatal shooting of Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of the global Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda. American Navy SEALs took his body into custody, positively identified bin Laden through genetic identification, and then released the body into the sea within 24 hours. President Barack Obama announced the news later that evening to celebrations across the country and around the world. Bin Laden eluded capture early on in the American war against global terrorism and his continued elusiveness only compounded the frustration later experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq. Coming after the tragedy of 3,000 innocents lost to his suicide attackers on September 11, three wars in the Middle East, hundreds of billions of dollars spent on national and homeland security, the twin feelings of jubilation and relief are understandable. Similarly, the expectations for a more secure America are as well, but sadly, they are not justified.
Bin Laden Only the Latest in a Long Line
Bin Laden’s emergence and barbarity paralleled that of his twentieth century antecedent -- Vladimir Lenin. Bin Laden, in the same manner as Lenin (and Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, and Ruhollah Khomeini) combined charisma, ambition, organizational discipline, and ruthlessness in pursuit of grandiose objectives to reshape the prevailing political order. Except Bin Laden succeeded in upending his world without the resources and apparatus of a functioning state or a conventional military.
Bin Laden’s principal strengths were a seductive fantasy ideology providing a potent counter-narrative to American-led globalization, a flair for mass-casualty terrorism, and most importantly, an adaptable and resilient network structure both durable and easily replicated. American policymaker and scholar Fred Iklé predicted this threat in 1997, presciently warning then of “a twenty-first Lenin.” Iklé asserted a future revolutionary’s access to modern technology (namely weapons of mass destruction), ability to devise asymmetric tactics, and readiness to employ deception would exploit the vulnerabilities of Western liberal democracies.
Fortunately, bin Laden never obtained access to weapons of mass destruction. His bid to galvanize the Muslim world by promising the rebirth of the Caliphate in the wake of a global Western-Islamic war failed utterly, but his legacy, mantle, and vision will be taken up yet again by the next Lenin.
So Who or What is the Next Threat?
Few individuals have risen to Bin Laden’s prominence, but when Iklé issued his warning, Bin Laden was still just an aspiring terrorist who had just been ejected from Sudan.
Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic lecturer and former imam, is a possible successor, having played a critical role in transforming a local Yemeni militant organization into Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awlaki’s name has been connected with the 2005 bombings in London, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, and the failed 2009 Christmas Day airplane bombing, and the unsuccessful 2010 attempt in Times Square.
Most importantly though is the fact that al-Awlaki is a former U.S. citizen (born in New Mexico in 1971 and holder of numerous degrees from American universities) and has principally succeeded by recruiting and motivating others via the Internet. Merely speaking English and possessing a talent for online Islamist propaganda, al-Awlaki has quickly achieved notoriety in a relatively short space of time.
Mercifully to date, only a few Americans, and expatriate ones at that, have been drawn to Islamist extremism; America can only hope its national fabric has withstood the erosion of loyalty and Balkanization observed in other countries.
Al-Awlaki, in the same manner as bin Laden, is representative of “fourth generation warfare,” as conceived by U.S. Marine Corps COL T.X. Hammes (Ret.), William Lind, and other noted military scholars. Fourth Generation Warfare contends future conflict will feature networked insurgents waging low-intensity conflict across a variety of realms (military, political, economic, and societal) with the aim of de-legitimizing a given sovereign authority.
In developing this concept, COL Hammes cited the Chinese, Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, and Palestinian insurgents as prototypes of fourth generation warfare antagonists. In each case, the insurgents succeeded in changing the policies of Western democracies; once their forces departed, the insurgencies were free to achieve their local objectives by using more conventional techniques.
COL Hammes declined to predict the likely shape of fifth generation warfare, but highlighted the 2001 anthrax attack as a probable indicator. Launched anonymously, authorities have still not issued a definitive conclusion as to who was responsible. In this vein, COL Hammes and others have noted modern technology empowers solitary individuals to a degree not witnessed before in history.
Contemporary fiction and film have increasingly presented the phenomenon of one individual taking on the state and the world with devastating results. See the work of Daniel Suarez, an American IT consultant who has briefed the intelligence community, which recounts the exploits of a brilliant video game programmer whose death triggers networked programs to launch an assault on all aspects of human relationships in a modern world.
How exactly does one individual take on the world?
Easily, in the world of “open source warfare.” As John Robb, a former U.S. Air Force special operator, has noted, modern-day insurgents are operating in the same fashion as open-source software programmers -- organizing spontaneously around common goals, sharing information, and maintaining loose and non-hierarchical networks -- and at a pace more rapid than the United States can keep up. In the Internet era, lone insurgents can remain anonymous via “dark networks,” download the latest do-it-yourself weapons technology, discuss recommended tactics, and broadcast their latest exploits.
Why would one individual want to take on the world (especially when the United States military is apparently capable of finding you anywhere)?
Of fear, greed, and honor -- to cite ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s immortal triptych -- bin Laden and fellow Islamist extremists were motivated by the last. Decrying the ascent of an infidel West and the humbling of the once great Islamic civilization, bin Laden believed his quest would restore Islam’s honor. The subsequent war seemed to confirm Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, but more mundane desires and crasser passions will be equally prevalent.
U.S. Army LT COL Ralph Peters (Ret.) has repeatedly written how “discarded” individuals around the world will seethe with envy at the prosperity and power of the United States. With America so far away, these individuals will instead strike at the local government, one which is riddled with corruption and has been complicit in his home country’s vast inequality.
For Peters, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 is the complex and bloody prototype for the many rebellions besetting the world today. During that revolution, idealists committed violence in the name of social justice and economic distribution; conversely, in the present day, criminal opportunists are reducing countries to chaos all in the name of greed and market share.
In the near term, American forces remain committed in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the latter, the situation has stabilized and the U.S. presence is declining. In the former, American forces are seemingly stalemated and, with the elimination of bin Laden, may have even less justification to remain in substantive numbers than before.
Public sentiment is no longer inclined to sacrifice American blood and treasure to protect the feckless and corrupt Karzai regime; the United States should withdraw its forces and make peace with Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban. (After a year of resumed relations, the United States can always renege and return to eliminate Omar and his cabal.)
In the longer term, the United States, as submitted previously, will have little to no knowledge of where or who his antagonist is or exactly how the antagonist will strike at him. Accordingly, the United States will really only know one thing -- threats will persist and the ability to counter will depend on overcoming the encumbrances of preceding choices and adopting capabilities and attributes necessary to defeating future threats.
In terms of capabilities, the first priority should be a future force structure that emphasizes the battlefield warfighter, not bloated command structures or the promises of cutting edge technological weapons. Given the efficacy of American service members over the past decade in comparison to the non-performance of gold-plated weapons systems, the decision to shift resources should be straightforward. A second priority should be re-focusing military doctrine on the destruction of the enemy, whether it is state-based or non-state, and not stabilization, reconstruction, or relief.
Opposing sides in the conventional / counterinsurgency debate would vehemently respond the destruction of the enemy is a primary objective for them too, and justifiably so. However, traditionalists contend the attention on insurgencies is counter-productive, while reformers dismiss the probability of future conventional wars; the perspectives have merit but downplay the risk inherent with each approach. In the end, the recourse to an either/or stance just ignores the adaptability demonstrated by the US military.
As the latter half of the war in Iraq showed, the American military is quite capable of self-criticism and pivoting doctrinally. Whether the American military "forgot" the lessons of the Vietnam War or purposely ignored them is irrelevant. Midway through the Iraq War, key leaders recognized the inadequacy of prevailing approaches, developed alternatives, and executed them -- within a short period of time and with the limited manpower available to them. Lastly, destruction of the enemy should be the extent of the commitment, not managing the consequences of their destruction and ensuring subsequent stability.
Additional priorities include expanded intelligence activities and operations to gain a broader and deeper understanding of foreign cultures, religions, and societies; and, a dedicated man-hunting capability.
In terms of attributes, America must embrace resiliency, since perfect security is unattainable. Achieving resiliency however will require the American national government relinquish a large number of the non-security responsibilities and authorities assumed since the nation graduated to superpowerdom, principally because the American national government has assumed roles requiring the extraction and expenditure of resources far in excess of what is available. As American strategist Edwark Luttwak has noted in discussing the Byzantine Empire, a key reason for the empire’s endurance for over 800 years was its scrupulous husbanding of economic and military resources.
To close, the elimination of bin Laden is a victory to savor, but the threat, barbarity, and violence he heralded demonstrated this challenge to American security will persist.
Congratulations to the warfighters and operators who made this victory possible.