Osama bin Laden's death is a significant blow for al Qaeda, removing a figurehead who had evaded the largest manhunt in world history for almost a decade, and who seemingly managed to remain operationally relevant up until he was killed. In the torrents of commentary that will follow his announced death, many will agree with the puzzling proclamation that analyst Peter Bergen made on CNN last night that this marks the end of the war on terror.
In fact, bin Laden's death does not close this chapter in history. Two points are worth bearing in mind. First, bin Laden's strategic ideas for beating a superpower (which U.S. planners never fully understood) have permeated his organization, and are widely shared by al Qaeda's affiliates. Second, one critical lesson of 2001 is that we should not allow bin Laden's death to cause us to lose sight of the continued threat that al Qaeda poses.
Bin Laden's paradigms for fighting against a superpower foe were forged during the Afghan-Soviet war. Multiple factors prompted the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, including an Islamist insurgency that threatened the country's pro-Soviet regime and infighting among Afghanistan's communists that culminated in bloody internecine clashes. Although the Soviet general staff opposed the invasion, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev insisted that operations in Afghanistan would end successfully in three to four weeks. But the war didn't turn out as he predicted: The Soviets would withdraw after nine years of costly occupation, experiencing stiff resistance from Afghan mujahidin backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
Bin Laden traveled to Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after the war began. Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former CIA officer, notes in his book The Search for al Qaeda that once he arrived, bin Laden became "a major financier of the mujahidin, providing cash to the relatives of wounded or martyred fighters, building hospitals, and helping the millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to the border region of Pakistan." But it was his first trip to Afghanistan's front lines in 1984 that left a lasting impression on young Osama, and gave him a thirst for more action.
When bin Laden and his fellow Arab comrades-in-arms unexpectedly held their ground in the face of several attacks by Russian special forces (spetsnaz) near Khost, Afghanistan, in the spring of 1987, the skirmish launched bin Laden to prominence in the Arab media as a war hero. In reality, that battle was insignificant to the outcome of the Afghan-Soviet war -- and though bin Laden subsequently emphasized his own role in the conflict, every serious history concludes that the "Afghan Arabs," fighters from the Arab world who traveled to South Asia to join the war against Soviets, were not a military factor in Russia's defeat. Nonetheless, bin Laden's time on the Afghan battlefield was a formative experience for him, one that shaped the approach he would later bring to running al Qaeda.
One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy. The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991. Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire's dissolution is through the costs imposed by the conflict.
Indeed, bin Laden has spoken of how he used "guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt." He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions -- and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were now predicting the American empire's collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."