After Bin Laden: What might come next
After an extraordinary week of events in the United States and abroad, one thing is clear: Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of American forces has the potential to ripple out into global affairs in many ways — political and military, diplomatic and cultural, and of course U.S. national security.
In these dispatches, Associated Press journalists from around the world outline the path ahead in a world without bin Laden.
By Eileen Sullivan, Washington
It wasn't long after the stunning announcement of Osama bin Laden's death before thoughts in America turned to new, fearful questions: When will the other shoe drop? Would al-Qaida or its terrorist sympathizers retaliate?
The Obama administration's answer: There's no intelligence yet pointing to specific or imminent plans for future attacks, but its spies are watching and eavesdroppers are listening carefully for any such signs.
Besides, a quick retaliatory terror strike against targets inside the United States is hardly al Qaida's signature. The plots to blow up the USS Cole, bomb U.S. embassies in Africa and crash jetliners in September 2001 took years to plan, finance and carry out undetected. Even smaller-scale, more recent terrorist plots — constrained after more than a decade of anti-terror raids, missile attacks from the skies and financial seizures by government forces around the world — have taken at least months to pull together.
Counterterrorism officials are more worried about the potential for violence by an individual or small group with plans to act alone — especially those with no formal ties to any known terror organizations. And, of course, U.S. targets already overseas — American soldiers, embassies and companies — are more vulnerable to a retaliatory attack.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department warned law enforcement offices to be on the lookout for homegrown, violent extremists who may see bin Laden's death as an excuse to attack. Of great concern are people in the U.S. with violent plans who are strangers to the intelligence community — people like the Pakistani-American accused of trying to set off a bomb last year in New York City.
"We continue to operate under the premise that terrorists not yet identified by the intelligence community and law enforcement may be operating in the United States and could advance and execute attacks without warning," according to an intelligence bulletin issued the day after bin Laden was killed.
Federal law enforcement officers are under orders to review all open cases with potential al-Qaida connections. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said extra security will be at some of the country's large international airports, as the aviation industry continues to be an attractive target for terrorists. And, as they already do, if intelligence officials come across someone with known or suspected ties to terrorism, they will add that name to the terror watch list.
Local law enforcement has been encouraged to use closed-circuit televisions to monitor sensitive areas, establish neighborhood watch programs, conduct security sweeps for explosives and do background checks on employees. These are not new suggestions, but counterterrorism officials want to remind the country to be on extra alert in order to stave off potential retaliatory attacks by bin Laden supporters.
"I think that we will ultimately be more safe as a result of his death," Attorney General Eric Holder told senators. "But in the short term, I think we have some serious concerns that we have to be ready to address."
By Patrick Quinn, Kabul, Afghanistan
The death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is not expected to cripple the organization held responsible for acts of global terror that included the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Nor will his death spell the end of the terror threat.
Always a loosely organized group, al-Qaida over the past decade has inspired a number of deadly offshoots and franchises, including the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, responsible for training a suicide bomber who tried to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. It also inspired the Fort Hood, Texas, shooter who killed 13 people and wounded 32 more in November 2009.
Although bin Laden was the spiritual guide for the various franchises now operating in Somalia, North Africa and as far away as the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, he never ran the groups directly. Many of the people he helped train in Afghanistan during and after the Soviet invasion did run their own groups, including the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq. But they often acted on their own, with little guidance from bin Laden.
In recent years, bin Laden is thought to have had little control of the group he founded. Instead, much of the original group's core operations are through to have been run by its No. 2, Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahri, who is also thought to be hiding in Pakistan.
Although robbed of their spiritual figurehead, the groups that bin Laden inspired are unlikely to be deterred by his death. And unless the raid on his safe house generates actionable intelligence on terror attacks in the planning stages, new acts of terror will take place with or without bin Laden.
Far more worrisome for al-Qaida: the popular uprisings that toppled the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike the establishment of Islamic theocracies the world over, which is what bin Laden preached as a way to topple the regimes, the uprisings have sought the creation of free democracies.
By Robert H. Reid, Cairo
Al-Qaida's attacks in the U.S. on 9-11 plunged America into war — first in Afghanistan where the terror movement was headquartered and later in Iraq, which President George W. Bush described as the "central front in the war on terror." Ironically, however, the death of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden is expected to have little immediate effect on either conflict.
The war in Iraq, which cost more than 4,450 American lives, was winding down long before elite Navy SEALs gunned down bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. Unless the Iraqi government changes its mind and asks the Americans to stay longer, the last 50,000 U.S. troops will be gone by the end of this year. Even if they stay, the U.S. role has changed from active combat to training and supporting the Iraqi armed force, which still faces diminished threat from al-Qaida and other insurgent groups, some of which are backed by Iran.
Last month, 11 U.S. service members died in Iraq, about half of them from hostile fire. That was the highest monthly toll since November 2009 but still far below figures from the height of the war, when monthly death counts sometimes soared over 100.
In Afghanistan, President Barack Obama had already announced plans to begin withdrawing American forces starting in July, slowly handing over security responsibility to Afghan troops. The U.S. administration has not said how many of about 100,000 American service members will be heading home in the first wave. The White House has insisted that the rate of departures will depend on how effective the Afghans prove to be in fighting the Taliban and its insurgent allies, including al-Qaida.
After more than eight years, however, the war in Afghanistan has become deeply unpopular. The wild card is whether the American public — and its representatives in Congress — will step up demands for a speedy end to the war now that bin Laden is gone.
Mindful of that possibility, U.S. and European officials were quick to declare that the mission in Afghanistan was not over, and that a rapid withdrawal might destabilize the country and enable al-Qaida and other militants to group.
But with nearly two-thirds of the American public already questioning whether the Afghan war is worth fighting, that may prove to be a hard sell in the coming months unless a resurgent al-Qaida is able to mount a major attack against U.S. interests.
"Look, part of the argument against this reduction is that it was reputational, for staying in Afghanistan. 'We can't look like America was driven out.' 'We can't go away with our tail between our legs,'" Rep. Barney Frank said this week. "Well, we just killed Osama bin Laden, and I think that takes a lot of the pressure away — a lot of the punch away from the argument that 'Oh, it will look like we walked away.'"
By Chris Brummitt, Islamabad
The killing of Osama bin Laden dealt another blow to already shaky ties between the United States and Pakistan, propelling one ugly question to the forefront: Was Islamabad, a supposed American ally, protecting the al-Qaida leader?
Even if no answer is ever found, the fallout from the raid is hurting the Obama administration's strategy of securing Pakistani cooperation in the terror fight and in creating stability in Afghanistan so U.S. troops can begin withdrawing this year as planned.
The White House and the Pentagon currently say there is no evidence of collusion between senior Pakistan government or security officials and bin Laden. But they say Islamabad needs to explain how he was able to build a home in an army town a short drive from the capital and live undetected, apparently for several years.
If any turns up, the stakes would rise dramatically: Congress would likely halt aid — something many of its members are already calling for — and Washington would demand action against the officials involved, further hindering its goals in the region.
The Pakistan army is humiliated and facing intense domestic pressure for not knowing about or being unable to stop the unilateral raid by American commandoes deep inside its territory. It has threatened to review cooperation with Washington if it launches any other similar operations against senior al-Qaida or Taliban militants still living on its soil.
Even before the raid, ties between the countries had been plummeting against a backdrop of competing strategic interests in Afghanistan. Washington wants Pakistan to attack Afghan Taliban factions sheltering on its soil, but Islamabad has refused to do, not wishing to antagonize what it expects to be an ally in Afghanistan when the Americans withdraw.
Ugly tussles over the fate of a CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis and deeply unpopular American drone strikes against militants on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border were also shattering what little trust there was between the two supposed allies.
Some hope that American pressure on Pakistan in the wake of the bin Laden raid could lead to a new resolve in tracking down other al-Qaida leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahri. Arresting him would certainly go a long way toward allaying concerns in Washington.
If nothing is found directly linking Pakistani officials to bin Laden, then ties will likely carry on along the same volatile trajectory as before. Neither side can afford a rupture in relations, no matter how imperfect they are.
By Liz Sidoti, Washington
The nation is a bit more upbeat, and President Barack Obama's poll numbers are a little higher.
It's temporary. The death of the world's most wanted terrorist didn't dramatically change the contours of the political environment as the 2012 presidential race gets under way.
Obama's re-election race will be competitive no matter who Republicans choose to challenge him; America still is an ideologically divided country in which close elections have become the norm.
The public's outlook remains sour. People are smarting over 9 percent unemployment and $4-per-gallon gasoline as well as soaring national debt and trillion-dollar deficits.
And, for those reasons, the sluggish economy — not foreign policy — is all but certain to be the defining issue of the race.
Even so, for now at least, the president is in a clear position of political strength after authorizing and overseeing the covert mission to get the al-Qaida leader responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
He looks like a strong, experienced leader dealing with serious issues. It's a contrast to the muddled GOP field that lacks a front-runner and, to a certain extent, has been focused on other matters that look small by comparison, like Obama's birth certificate.
Osama bin Laden's death did change one part of the nation's political dynamic: Obama answered GOP critics who claimed he was not tough enough to take on terrorists, not experienced enough to be commander-in-chief, not decisive enough to lead a country still vulnerable to attacks.
Now Republicans, who for decades have successfully painted Democrats as weak on national security, face a far tougher task in making that case against a Democratic incumbent.
That could change, of course, if America gets hit again. Obama, as president, would be blamed. And he still faces significant questions about an Afghanistan war that he dramatically grew by boosting the number of U.S. forces.
But for now, Obama — the candidate of change four years ago — has an enormous victory in his pocket as he seeks to persuade voters to stick with the status quo just as Republicans start making the case to reject it.
THE AMERICAN MOOD
By Amy Westfeldt, New York
From the raucous cries of "U-S-A!" and "We got him!" to a quiet laying of a wreath at ground zero by the president, Americans reeled with a mix of elation, reflection and fear as they struggled to close one stressful chapter and write the first words to the next one.
A cathartic release followed the first tweets and texts that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Thousands crowded outside the White House, in Times Square, at universities and at the Sept. 11 attack site in New York, climbing street signs to sing the national anthem and praise the president.
"We had this 10 years of frustration just building and building, wanting this guy dead," said Lisa Ramaci in New York, "and now he is." From around the country, words like "devil," ''snake" and "evil" were used to describe the dead terrorist.
A day or two later, voices became more reflective, concerned that celebrations were too much like tailgate parties and put values of revenge over that of forgiveness. People who lost the most — the 9/11 victims' families — urged restraint.
"To say that I'm happy that he was killed just seems odd, and it goes against my Christian faith," said Deena Burnett Bailey, whose husband died in the crash of a hijacked jetliner into a barren Pennsylvania field.
By week's end, it seemed the country had listened. President Barack Obama had bowed his head and hugged 9/11 relatives at a tree-lined patch of land at the World Trade Center site, in a moment far more contemplative than triumphant.
Parents and teachers struggled to explain the event to children who were too young to know about the terrorist named bin Laden, and the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on one single day. Students at the Ivy Preparatory Academy in Atlanta covered their eyes as they watched images of jets flying into the trade center, cried at television broadcasts, as they started to learn about post-bin Laden America.
American Muslims, a community with much at stake, took to the streets in Dearborn, Mich., waving flags and cheering the death. Then they ventured forward with bold ideas for a future after a decade of feeling stigmatized.
"Osama bin Laden is dead," Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American, posted on Twitter. "Good, now can I get my identity back?"
In the most familiar ritual of a post-9/11 America, the death of a terrorist brought police dogs into train stations and armed security into airports, and stoked worry that bin Laden's death was not the end — that any attack ultimately brings another.
"We're at the middle of the beginning of the end," David Haas said in the nation's capital, outside the memorial to the Pentagon with his wife and daughter. "We're at war with Islamic terrorism. And we're going to be at war with Islamic terrorists probably for the rest of my life."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sullivan covers counterterrorism for The Associated Press; Quinn is the AP's news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Reid is the AP's Mideast editor; Brummitt is the AP's Pakistan bureau chief; Sidoti is the AP's national political reporter; and Westfeldt is the U.S. editor of AP's 9/11 10th-anniversary coverage.