The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs last Sunday is a victory for America, the West and the entire free world. The death of bin Laden is a triumph for the victims, both living and dead, of the September 11th attacks, and a sign to the world that America does not forgive or forget crimes committed against its citizens. But the killing of bin Laden promises to be more than just a long-sought, symbolic victory. Though little is known at this early date, according to U.S. officials, documents and digital data captured by the U.S. forces that stormed bin Laden’s compound are already proving enormously invaluable. After the intelligence obtained from the operation is processed, last Sunday’s raid could very well be the greatest victory so far in the war on terror — all considerations of symbolism and justice aside.
The impact of bin Laden’s death, and America’s capture of troves of valuable intelligence, will be measurable in three key areas (not counting the aforementioned moral victory). Once he was found, the SEALs entered not just one man’s hideout, but what U.S. intelligence officials have called “an active command and control center.” In an interview with CNN, White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon compared the documents found in the compound to a “small college library,” a “really extraordinary” find — the largest ever seized in a single anti-terrorist operation.
Already made public was al-Qaeda’s interest in hitting American railway targets on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year. The intelligence suggested the attack was in the “aspirational” stage — al-Qaeda had decided to move ahead, but did not yet have a plan in place about which trains to derail or what terminals to bomb. The intelligence also confirmed what is already known — for maximum psychological effect, the organization sought to strike out at the West on civic and religious holidays. Recall, for example, the attempt by terrorist Mohamed Osman Mohamad to bomb the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in lovely Portland, Oregon. While Mohamad may have been acting alone, he shared the same fondness for symbolic dates as al-Qaeda.
It will likely not be known for some time what other plots similar to the Portland bombing or the public transit attack have been discovered. And as is often the case with intelligence operations, it is possible that many of the counterintelligence victories achieved from the raid will never be known.
It is equally easy to accept that still further lives will be saved as al-Qaeda goes into damage-control mode and attempts to cope with a catastrophic breach of its operational security. Clearly, given how long it took bin Laden to be found, the organization places a high value on secrecy. If all the various factions of al-Qaeda were to be joined at any one place, it would likely be the top — with bin Laden himself. Furthermore, the raid caught the al-Qaeda leader completely by surprise, without giving him any opportunity to warn his fellow terrorists to seek cover or to destroy evidence. Indeed, two telephone numbers were found sewn into his clothes — one can only imagine how nervous the people at the other end of those telephone lines now are.
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