After bin Laden: now what?

UChicago terrorism expert Robert Pape and PhD candidate Jenna Jordan discuss the implications of the al Qaeda leader’s death.

By Amy Braverman Puma


The afternoon press conference had begun about five minutes before I slipped into the Gleacher Center lounge. I missed the statement by suicide-terrorism expert Robert Pape, PhD'88, about what Osama bin Laden's death could mean (if it was anything like what he had told several news outlets Monday morning, it was that bin Laden's death offered an opportunity to seriously scale down the war against terrorism). Now Jenna Jordan, AM'03, one of Pape's doctoral students at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, was addressing the handful of local Chicago reporters and TV cameras. Jordan, who studies how "leadership decapitation" affects terrorist organizations, said killing a group's leader "rarely brings about the demise of a terrorist group."

Jordan's research (pdf) has shown that terrorist organizations that are more than 20 years old, have more than 500 members, and are religious (rather than separatist or otherwise motivated) are the most stable and the hardest to dismantle. Al Qaeda, she said, fits the bill, indicating that in the case of bin Laden, "decapitation alone is not likely to be effective." (Read Jordan's editorial from today's Chicago Tribune. —Ed)

In fact, targeting such an organization's leader "can actually increase their resilience" and retaliatory attacks, Jordan said. In 2004, for example, when Israeli air strikes killed high-profile Hamas leaders, the group retaliated and gained support, winning Palestinian elections soon after. (So the answer, to get back to Pape's point that I missed but was now implied, is to pull out of Afghanistan quickly.)

After the two researchers' brief statements, they opened the floor to questions. Pape, the author of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, argued that getting American ground forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan would decrease attacks. Keeping troops there fuels anger and helps terrorist groups recruit. "If we can lessen hostility toward the US," he said, "we lessen support for the organization itself." Because suicide organizations by nature always need more members, they "depend on the next generation," Pape said. "Walk-in volunteers are motivated by anger about the presence of ground forces." In Iraq, he noted, as the United States has withdrawn troops, the number of attacks has fallen.

Finding bin Laden, Pape noted, was "an intelligence problem," not a military one. "Once you have accurate intelligence, you don't need lots of people on the ground." The United States should take this opportunity, he argued, to get much of the military out and keep a smaller, smarter presence in place.

Robert Pape and Jenna Jordan speak with reporters at the Gleacher Center.

May 3, 2011