WASHINGTON – The first anniversary of killing Osama bin Laden is accompanied by a grim truth for Western countries, which now must fight an increasingly complex enemy amid the political manipulation of an election year, experts say.
The successful raid by Navy SEAL Team 6 on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan on May 1, 2011 signaled an end to the reign of the man who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. It also formalized a growing transition in national security threats: The U.S. no longer faces a single enemy group in al-Qaida, but now must contend with a global network of self-sufficient terrorist cells.
“Bin Laden’s greatest contribution, besides the atrocity of 9-11, has been his legacy. He franchised al-Qaida in many ways,” says M.J. Gohel, terrorism expert with London-based intelligence and security think tank the Asia Pacific Foundation, while speaking to WTOP. “The threat is fragmented.”
Gohel points to a rising global Islamic “jihadist” movement comprised of “many autonomous groups together with semi-autonomous cells.”
They are bonded by a common ideology of imposing fundamentalist Islam, and a hatred of the West and democratic allies such as Israel and India. These groups include the Pakistani Taliban, the Mullah Omar-led Taliban, the Haqqani terrorist network, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Magreb region of North Africa, Boko Haram in West Africa and al-Shabab in Somalia.
“It was much simpler when there was one organization and one could go after them and eliminate them,” says Gohel. “Now they’re spread all over the world.”
Add to this list lone wolf terrorists, such as the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, whose May 1 attempt in 2010 would also mark an anniversary on Tuesday.
“We think the threat has gone away, but it’s very much still there,” says Gohel, noting the recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of buildings in London in anticipation of this summer’s Olympic Games.
WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green says the greatest threat is not al-Qaida as an organization, but their off-the-shelf plots that have been developed and are ready to be executed.
“A lot of al-Qaida operatives have been removed from the picture, but those plots are still out there,” he says. “That’s what the intelligence community was saying for years: It doesn’t matter whether bin Laden is killed or not. This organization is on that track now.”
Combating these threats becomes increasingly complicated when mixed with politics on a global level. President Barack Obama, facing a tough reelection this fall, must parry international threats while appearing strong on national security and foreign policy.
In a video released in March, Obama used the story of his decision to launch the raid on bin Laden as proof of his hawkish credentials, despite criticism from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his likely opponent for the general election.
On Monday, Romney said “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” indicating the last one-term Democratic president would have also risked putting servicemen in harm’s way to kill the terrorist leader.
“The narrative is out there where the Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had advised the president not go forward with this raid. Even Vice President Biden said the raid was too risky,” says CBS White House Correspondent Norah O’Donnell while speaking with WTOP. “This has now become a political issue.”
“This issue is the biggest threat to U.S.-China relations in 20 years,” says O’Donnell. The American relationship with China, and their permanent seat on the United Nations National Security Council, is critical for dealing with international threats such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
“Democrats generally have been accused of being dovish on foreign policy, weak on foreign policy,” O’Donnell says. “Mitt Romney has very few foreign policy credentials, so that could be a strong contrast point, certainly one of the strengths President Obama wants to play up when he has a record on the economy that can be challenged by Mitt Romney.”
Yet despite an anticipated day of celebration at the White House on May 1, the president’s schedule for Tuesday is fairly quiet. He has a behind-the-scenes meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and a series of briefings on national security. There is some chatter of an anniversary attack, but no specific threats, says John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent and host of “John King USA.”
“The president deserves credit on this day, so do the SEALs, so do the intelligence analysts,” he says. “The president said ‘yes,’ and now he’s going to use it politically. Some find that unseemly, but welcome to politics.
“All is fair game.”
King says it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to “use their usual ‘Democrats are soft on national security'” argument this election year, while Obama gives Romney what King calls “the Massachusetts Treatment.” The incumbent is doing precisely what the Republicans did to Democratic presidential contenders Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, in 1988, and John Kerry, the U.S. senator from the same state, in 2004.
“He’s going to take advantage of this,” King says of the sitting president.