Leadership: Decapitation Motivates and Clarifies

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May 29,2008: What's the world going to do when they don't have Osama bin Laden to kick around anymore? With many key al Qaeda operatives fleeing to Pakistan, the CIA is revving up its operations along the Afghan-Pakistan border to welcome them, and hoping all this activity will make it possible to finally nail bin Laden.

The al Qaeda defeat in Iraq has hurt the terrorist organizations reputation big time. The senior leaders, and prominent spokesmen, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahir, have avoided confronting this defeat head on. Thus while these two continue to issue video and audio messages from their mountain hideouts, fewer people are paying attention. But the CIA believes that killing bin Laden would still be a major blow to Islamic terrorist morale.

The number of Islamic radicals have been growing since the 1980s, and is into its second generation. Bin Laden is seen as "old school," but none of the new generation of Islamic killers has made much of a reputation for themselves. Partly that's because these hotshots are getting killed off at a rapid clip. About the same time the U.S. and Britain were toppling Saddam, Israel was shutting down its own Palestinian terrorist organizations by going after the key people. That really messes up the effectiveness of a terrorist organization. The U.S. noticed how successful this "decapitation" (concentrate on killing the leaders) tactic was, and emulated it.

Bin Laden has become a symbol, and when he goes down, it will provide an opportunity for someone else to step into the spotlight. The most likely candidate is al Qaeda's number 2 guy (and real brains behind the operation), Ayman al Zawahir. This guy fled Egypt in the 1980s, as the government crushed local Islamic terrorist organizations. Zawahir ended up in Pakistan, where he met and joined forces with bin Laden. Zawahir had the smarts and planning skills, while bin Laden had access to lots of cash, and a growing appetite for the limelight. He gave good soundbite. Being over six feet tall helped.

If Zawahir does not, or cannot, take over after bin Laden dies, then there will be a bit of chaos and uncertainty. The CIA is trying to develop some game plans to take advantage of that. Even before September 11, 2001, the CIA was compiling information on the al Qaeda leadership, and much of the membership. You never hear about a lot of these people, but they are continually tracked and studied by the intelligence agencies. This kind of information came in handy while fighting the al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. Each time you killed a senior guy, it sent disruptive ripples through the organization. Even without grabbing the dead guys laptop, other al Qaeda leaders changed their plans when one of their peers was taken out.

This disruption to the organization is expected to be the most notable effect of bin Laden leaving the scene. He is not believed to be doing much to plan and direct terrorist operations. He's more of a cheerleader and icon. That's why his death will be yet another blow to al Qaeda prestige. Infighting to replace him would also hurt the image, just as the defeat in Iraq did. Reputation, more than reality, is more important in the world of Islamic terrorists. There's been a lot less reputation for al Qaeda to lose of late, and bin Laden's demise might just drain that cup dry.

 


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