We cannot stop at Osama bin Laden

May 4, 2011

By Robert M. Morgenthau
The opinions expressed are his own.

Every American must applaud the demise of Osama bin Laden. But even as we celebrate the success of the mission, we cannot afford to gloat. As any veteran law enforcement official can attest, the end of so long a manhunt only marks a new beginning. Rather than rest triumphant, with momentum on our side, we must redouble our efforts.

As one who has supervised investigations that often lasted years and spanned continents, I know there is an unusual opportunity here to reduce the influence of fanatics and make the world a safer place for democracy.

Al Qaeda has been deprived of its leader, but the terrorist organization has not been eliminated. Consider the power structure. The organization has lost its charismatic commander, a despot who ruled as all criminal leaders do: by fear. But bin Laden’s death will not automatically spell the end of his terror network. When a criminal boss is taken out an internecine struggle often follows. We must exploit this sudden split in the ranks. Headless, al Qaeda is uncharted territory. The coming days will bear much new traffic, as the old lieutenants and adjutants jockey for new positions.

The raid on the bin Laden hideout has yielded a trove of new evidence in our case against al Qaeda. Government investigators will have to sift through years’ worth of papers. Further, if the published reports are accurate, the Navy Seals also captured a number of bin Laden’s housemates — witnesses who must be interrogated. We must interview them thoroughly to glean leads. Time is of the essence.

I am reminded of the last days of World War II. After Hitler was killed, we did not stop. Washington dispatched American agents [OSS and Counter-Intelligence teams] to go after his henchmen — the Nazi leaders who were apprehended and tried at Nuremberg. The operation in Abbottabad also reminded me of the Doolittle raid — when after Pearl Harbor Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to demonstrate that the United States still had teeth, that even as we faced enemies on two fronts, our military was not a paper tiger. The raid led by Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle on April 18,1942, was a wild experiment, when the U.S. Army flew sixteen B-25 bombers off an aircraft carrier for the first time to strike the Japanese homeland for the first time in the war.

Since 9/11, much has been said about the need for superior technology to win the war on terror. No doubt the Pentagon and Langley brought our technological advantage to bear in this mission. And yet President Obama chose not to rely on satellites and bombs. He went with boots on the ground. He trusted the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, and he demonstrated that America still has the skill and the will to accomplish its just goals — no matter how tall the odds.

But the triumph in Pakistan is also a victory for U.S. law enforcement. It has given notice to all would-be terrorists, big or small: It may take years, but we will come after you and we will find you. Everyone involved in making an enemy of the United States must understand that it carries a heavy cost.

Mr. Morgenthau was the District Attorney of New York County for 35 years, starting in 1975, and is now of counsel at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

Images, top to bottom: The compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, May 3, 2011. Bin Laden lived for the past five to six years in the compound deep inside Pakistan where the al Qaeda leader was killed by U.S. forces, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro; Map with details of al Qaeda inspired groups. Reuters Graphics


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Over the past 10 years, al Qaeda has become more than an organization led by one person. It is a viral culture and as such is more powerful and ubiquitous than what most people realize. The death of Bin Laden is purely symbolic. Remember that al Qaeda is very tech savvy and has the ability to harness the power of the Internet to keep itself in tact without a symbolic leader.

Bin Laden’s death needs to be viewed as a turning point in the struggle to win back the hearts and minds of a generation of people who have felt disenfranchised with the west.

I believe the most important trend is the continued uprisings in the Arab world by average people seeking democracy and human rights. This ideologically shift represents the most dangerous weapons against those who look to suppress freedom.

These uprisings have the potential for disruptive change that not only has could dismantle al Qaeda, but also create an environment that could fuel the repatriation of those who are ideologically aligned with al Qaeda back into a society that looks to compete with the west on a political and economic playing field, not a battlefield.

Posted by readyforthenet | Report as abusive

The Bin Laden hit is how we should have been dealing with al-Qaeda all along; drones and special ops (though more discrete spec ops) vice invasions of countries. Let’s hope we’ve begun on a new path.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

Morgenthau easily skips the main issue that feeds terrorism in the MidEast: the US and Israeli political position of suppressing Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian) to create a greater Israel through settlements on annexed land.

The US foreign policy in the 70s and 80s created Islamic fundamentalism to fight the supposed threat of communism in the Mideast, and increased this effort when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1980.

So Morgenthau should be talking about how US foreign policy should change to stop the rise of terrorism. No technology, no multi-billion defense budget, and no navy seal operation has shown to be effective so far. Just look at the hundreds of dead each month in Iraq and Afghanistan where US presence has now been for almost ten years!!! That is longer than WWII and the occupation of Germany combined!!

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

The irony is that the US is now allied with Al Qaeda in Libya.

Also, Morgenthau should read up on the US’s Flying Tigers group. They were ordered to attack Japanese forces in China, by President FDR, BEFORE Pearl Harbor. Get the history straight!

Posted by jerryku | Report as abusive

Mr. Morgenthau seems to equate assassination with law enforcement. An interesting position for a former prosecutor. Shoot first and ask questions later.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive