Bin Laden Death Changed Little in Fight Against Terrorism

One year on, the death of Osama bin Laden is starting to feel more like an asterisk than a milestone.

Yes, al-Qaeda’s capacity for organized mayhem has been significantly diminished. But the U.S. remains embroiled in Afghanistan, with a commitment of resources that will span the next decade. Pakistan swarms with murderous extremists of various stripes, and its relations with the U.S. are, to put it mildly, toxic. From Yemen through Iraq and across Africa to Mauritania, groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are becoming more aggressive; scarcely a week passes in Nigeria without some grisly attack by Boko Haram, an Islamist sect whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden.”

We don’t begrudge Barack Obama’s attempt to take some political credit for ordering a bold military mission. (Although an ad starring former President Bill Clinton, whose administration failed to stop Osama bin Laden, was perhaps not the savviest choice.) But, looking ahead, what’s needed is some humility about the challenges that still face the U.S. and some clarity about the means with which to overcome them.

The Obama administration rightly sought to expunge the phrase “war on terror” from the strategic lexicon and to reject any hint of a war on Islam. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Yet defining the U.S. fight as against al-Qaeda and its “violent extremist affiliates … around the world” -- as the 2010 National Security Strategy puts it -- strikes us as also off the mark: The spread of al-Qaeda’s brand to copycat groups potentially consigns the U.S. to a costly and ineffectual global game of Whac-A-Mole with deadly stakes.

Just as the Obama administration has used bin Laden’s death to recalibrate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it should set clear and discerning limits on its involvement in fighting these “extremist affiliates.” Some may not pose a direct threat to the U.S. -- unless, that is, U.S. forces get involved. Others do, and increasingly the tool to combat them is drone strikes like the one that killed the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Although we support the policy in general, we still await the Obama administration’s release of a detailed and consistent policy on criteria used when such strikes are authorized.

Justified or not, faceless death from the skies tends not to win many hearts and minds on the ground. If the U.S. wants to curb violent extremism in the Muslim world, it can provide more support for political reforms and economic development in those countries roiled by the Arab Spring -- beginning with robust leadership and follow-through at this week’s conference in Cairo to spur private investment in Arab countries in transition. And one added dividend of progress toward a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians -- something that has been sorely lacking these past three years -- would be a smaller pool of extremist recruits.

There are two domestic changes that could also reap dividends. The first is the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the moving of detainees to the U.S. -- something that Congress has shamefully made impossible for the White House. The second is to improve the transparency of the military tribunal system used for suspected terrorists, which has been reformed admirably in recent years. A good place to start is with televising, to the extent that it won’t compromise national security, the upcoming trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

This sober anniversary is a reminder that there will be no Berlin-Wall-falls moment of victory in the effort against global terrorists. But the U.S. can still prevail: by using clear judgment before involving ourselves in foreign situations, by weighing reasonable security steps at home against any erosion of civil rights, and by doing our utmost to support the aspirations of those now striving for peace, prosperity and liberty.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at