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U.S. marks 10 years since death of Osama bin Laden

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It has been 10 years since then-President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. had successfully killed the leader of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden. Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, joins CBSN to discuss the impact the former al-Qaida leader's death had on the terrorist network.

Video Transcript

BARACK OBAMA: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

- It has been 10 years since the world was notified of the death of Osama bin Laden. The announcement came almost a decade after he was named the most wanted man in the world, for his role in plotting the 9/11 attacks. The former head of al-Qaeda went into hiding, following September 11, 2001. From that point, he was only seen via taped messages released by the terror network. US intelligence agencies narrowed down bin Laden's location to a fortified compound in northern Pakistan.

During a covert nighttime operation, a small group of elite Navy SEALs, known as SEAL Team 6, entered the hideout and killed him. Joining me now for more on this is Thomas Joscelyn. He is a senior fellow and senior editor of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies "Long War Journal." Tom, you've been writing about al-Qaeda for 17 years. Take us back 10 years ago, and tell us what was learned from the trove of information the SEALs recovered from bin Laden's compound.

THOMAS JOSCELYN: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that the Navy SEALs who went in and killed Osama bin Laden were trained to pick up as much media, as many documents and files as they could. And in fact, they stuffed the bags that they brought with them full of so many materials that they had to pick up the gym bags that al-Qaeda used on the floor and started stuffing them with materials. And what they brought back with them, US intelligence officials learned, was basically the most significant treasure trove of intelligence on al-Qaeda that the US government had probably ever received, at least up until that point.

And those files, those documents revealed a lot about al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's final years. Prior to bin Laden's death, a lot of people in the US intelligence community assumed that he was just a spiritual figurehead, who was basically, out of the day-to-day management of al-Qaeda's affairs. The captured files and documents showed quite the opposite, that in fact, not only was he managing an international network of terrorists and insurgents, but, in fact, he was, in some cases, micromanaging them.

So this is a guy who, even though he was the most hunted and wanted terrorist on the planet for a decade and hunted by US and its allies, was actually in regular contact with people all across Africa and the Middle East and South Asia.

- And how did al-Qaeda and its affiliates still continue to grow and recruit after the raid?

THOMAS JOSCELYN: Well, it's important to keep in mind that the affiliates were always integrated with bin Laden's operations. And in some cases, those affiliates continued to grow after his death. Today, Shabab in Somalia, which swore its oath of allegiance, or bayat, to Osama bin Laden in 2010 before bin Laden was killed, that group has actually grown much more prolific and had become much more deadly and is really threatening the Somalia government and is threatening to overtake much of Somalia and establish an emirate.

We've seen now in West Africa the same story where al-Qaeda has gotten a lot stronger. Yemen, they face setbacks, but they're still pretty much in the fight. And in Syria, they've faced setbacks as well. And of course, in Iraq, ISS grew out of al-Qaeda and really betrayed bin Laden's legacy in some ways. And then in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda still has a very strong presence to this day. So bin Laden has been dead for 10 years, but unfortunately, al-Qaeda is still very much alive.

- You mentioned ISIS and the rise of other terrorist groups, in some cases, affiliated with al-Qaeda and in other cases, branching off independently. How has the landscape of terror threats changed from 10 years ago?

THOMAS JOSCELYN: Well, the rise of ISIS in 2013, 2014 certainly cut into al-Qaeda's market share across the board. We have up until that point in time, al-Qaeda really was the dominant player across the Salafi-jihadi world, and ISIS cut into that market quite a bit. However, al-Qaeda survived the ISIS challenge, and most of the so-called affiliates that are loyal to al-Qaeda's senior leadership remain loyal to this day.

So in fact, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was the right hand man to Osama bin Laden and his successor as al-Qaeda emir still commands the loyalty of thousands, if not tens of thousands of fighters across several countries. So al-Qaeda still is a very prolific insurgency organization that commits acts of violence on a day-to-day basis, and they have maintained a degree of cohesion, even with the challenges posed by the rise of ISIS and a prolific counterterrorism campaign waged by the US and its allies. This is an organization that was founded in 1988, and here we are in 2021, and it's still very much alive.

- Well, based on the intelligence that we have, what do we know about al-Qaeda's likeliest targets in present terms?

THOMAS JOSCELYN: Well, the thing is, when you understand how al-Qaeda operates and what al-Qaeda actually is as an organization, you realize they kill people on a day-to-day basis across a number of different countries, like I said across Africa, in the Middle East, and into South Asia. The question really is, what's their intent and capability to strike again once again in the West?

To this day, basically, in most recent years, they've been focusing on smaller, targeted attacks. Remember the December 2019 attack in Pensacola, which was managed, in part, by an operative from AQAP. Or you can think of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015 in Paris. These are very small-scale, targeted attacks that are meant to send a message.

The question is, will al-Qaeda attempt something bigger or larger, and in that case, will they be able to be successful? Because obviously, the defenses that we have today are much greater than they were on 9/11. But if they tried something bigger, again, what would they try? What would they go after? And it's likely they'd go after something like civilian transportation. They've considered high-profile assassinations. They've considered bigger plots, even targeting Pakistani frigates. There's all sorts of targets that could have in mind to go after.

The one thing I would keep an eye out for is that the last plot that we know that Osama bin Laden personally oversaw was to try and execute Mumbai-style attacks across Europe, and those attacks were thwarted, of course, but that was something that al-Qaeda has had in mind for a long time.

- I also want to ask you about present-day Afghanistan. The Biden administration is fully withdrawing our nation's forces from Afghanistan after 20 years, which is, as you know, America's longest war. What is al-Qaeda's operational status in Afghanistan, and what do you anticipate will be the near-term effects of withdrawal?

THOMAS JOSCELYN: Well, the US government has maintained for years that al-Qaeda only has a small sort of minimal presence in Afghanistan. And part of what we've done at "Long War Journal," my colleague, Bill Roggio and I is document why that's wrong, that al-Qaeda is operating throughout much of Afghanistan to this day. It maintains a very close relationship with the Taliban and senior leadership.

The deputy emir of the Taliban is a guy named Sirajuddin Haqqani. He's an al-Qaeda man. He and his family have been in bed with al-Qaeda since the 1980s. And al-Qaeda is very much integrated into the Taliban's insurgency against the Afghan government.

So I think that as the Taliban has further successes on the battlefield, this will obviously benefit al-Qaeda because despite the fact that the State Department and the Trump and then the Biden administrations have tried to say that this agreement with the Taliban will lead the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda, there's no evidence of that to this day. None. In fact, the Taliban has refused to even acknowledge that al-Qaeda is there, let alone break with them. So this is something that, as the US withdraws, we expect that al-Qaeda will begin to start announcing their presence in Afghanistan, more once again.

- Thomas Joscelyn, thank you for your insights.