Several Reflections on the Death of Bin Laden

We should be cautious on drawing too many conclusions from publicly available information, especially given the inaccuracy of early accounts (woman as human shield, etc.), but several features of the story beyond what’s been commented on widely are interesting:

1. Bin Laden may have been an operational drag on “Central Al Qaeda.” The weird story about plots to disrupt American trains (!) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 suggests that Bin Laden was still actively involved in operational planning. He could only communicate infrequently and with low bandwidth, vastly increasing the cycle time of planning revisions. It also put him very out of touch, probably contributing to Al Qaeda central irrelevance. I suspect that, despite the symbolic value of eliminating Bin Laden, had he just been eliminated by an airstrike, it might have been a net plus for Al Qaeda.

2. The operation as conducted, on the other hand, because of the intelligence yield of hardrives and documents and thumb drives now in US possession, leaves every Al Qaeda associate wondering whether their location has been or is about to be discovered, and whether they will soon meet a similar fate. They will no longer trust established communication channels and will suspect that people in contact with them have flipped. Al Qaeda’s central coordinating and resourcing function, had it had any strength left, probably is no more. The lesson will not be lost on people thinking of joining similar networks.

3. The controversy over the photos revealed interesting dynamics in the Obama administration and much silliness elsewhere. Leon Panetta said the photos would be released – despite this the President decided the opposite. It is clear who is in charge of this administration. On the other hand, Senator Lindsey Graham’s statement that the photos should be released because the only reason the go in on the ground was to obtain proof of Bin Laden’s death was utter foolishness. First of all, the intelligence yield and disruption of Al Qaeda was even more important than certainty (See #2 above.). Second, certainty was established in other ways than a picture. Third, a picture can be doctored and would not convince those who ready to believe in conspiracies (viz the parallel with Obama’s birthplace).

4. It’s interesting that in reaction to belief that elements in the Pakistani Army or ISI protected Bin Laden people are talking about cutting economic assistance funds, that tend to support the welfare of the Pakistani people and the civilian government, but not the assistance through military channels and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund, that are targeted directly on producing a Pakistani military more aligned with U.S. regional goals.

Comments

  1. Mark Kleiman says

    Welcome back, Q!

    I’ve seen lots of writing about seized data, none about captives. Did the SEALs bring anyone back?

    The other big story here is that the Pakistani authorities just rounded up a bunch of alleged AQ in Abbotabad. Is it possible that the raid signaled/helped cement a turnabout within ISI or the Pakistani military?

  2. Quincy Adams says

    Various early reports said that one person was taken alive; not sure there is confirmation on this. I am sure it’s too early to tell if there’s a real change in ISI.

  3. Brett Bellmore says

    “He could only communicate infrequently and with low bandwidth, vastly increasing the cycle time of planning revisions. “

    Materials found in bin Laden’s compound include hard drives, thumb drives and a dedicated fiber-optic cable used for point-to-point access to the Internet, according to two U.S. officials who read initial after-action reports on the raid.

    Perhaps we should amend early reports that Osama’s hiding place had no electronic communications. It had no public electronic communications.

  4. Ed Whitney says

    Maybe bin Laden is not really dead; maybe he is just pining for the fjords.

  5. Swift Loris says

    @Quincy Adams–it’s been flatly denied that the team took anyone alive from the compound. I just read that in the NYTimes’ The Lede blog from yesterday or the day before.

  6. Mrs Tilton says

    Bin Laden … plots to disrupt American trains

    He got that idea from Atlas Shrugged! Why does Ayn Rand hate America?

  7. Cranky Observer says

    > The weird story about plots to
    > disrupt American trains (!)

    Freight trains are an absolutely vital component of the US economy (one of our economic advantages over Europe, in fact, where freight was allowed to slide in favor of passenger transport whereas the reverse happened in the US) and if disrupted (whether by an attack or by the subsequent influx of DHS idiocy) would do significant damage.

    Cranky

  8. says

    Cranky: how do you go about disrupting freight trains? The RAF and the US 8th Air Force dropped thousands of tons of bombs to disrupt the Reichsbahn, to little effect.

    There are plenty of easier ways of carrying out economic sabotage and with greater headline impact – RPGs at oil refineries, hijacking (or simply buying) ships quietly on the high seas and turning them into bombs when they enter port, scattering radioactive powder in tunnels or the NYSE, etc. The absence of such attacks strongly indicates that al-Qaeda, along with most other terrorist movements, disdains such unheroic tactics.

  9. Joe says

    One other point I haven’t heard anywhere. The death of Bin Laden will certainly touch off a power struggle among the remaining leadership. How that will be played out is anybody’s guess. My guess is that it will be played out with increased terroristic acts. The person who pulls off the biggest one will become the next Bin Laden.

  10. SamChevre says

    Cranky: how do you go about disrupting freight trains? The RAF and the US 8th Air Force dropped thousands of tons of bombs to disrupt the Reichsbahn, to little effect.

    Like highways, a broad-scale attack (which is all WW2 air attacks could manage) isn’t very effective; targeted attacks on bridges and tunnels can be quite disruptive in the short-run. (Think of the issues in the DC area when one of the Potomac bridges is closed for repairs–and that’s with as much planning and warning as possible.)

  11. Cranky Observer says

    > Cranky: how do you go about disrupting freight trains?

    For a variety of reasons that should be obvious I am not going to answer that question. But I will note again that the autoimmune-disease response of the “Department of Homeland Security” is a large part of the effects of any such operation.

    Cranky

  12. Cranky Observer says

    Did I say autoimmune-disease response?

    = = = = =
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/08/us-security-trains-idUSTRE7472CF20110508

    “(Reuters) – A senator on Sunday called for a “no-ride list” for Amtrak trains after intelligence gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound pointed to potential attacks on the nation’s train system.

    Sen. Charles Schumer said he would push as well for added funding for rail security and commuter and passenger train track inspections and more monitoring of stations nationwide.

    “Circumstances demand we make adjustments by increasing funding to enhance rail safety and monitoring on commuter rail transit and screening who gets on Amtrak passenger trains, so that we can provide a greater level of security to the public,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference.

    U.S. officials last week said evidence found after the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan indicated the al Qaeda leader or his associates had engaged in discussions or planning for a possible attack on a train inside the United States on September 11, 2011. ”
    = = = = =