Penn State's Terrorism Center responds to death of Osama bin Laden

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Experts at Penn State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) have responded to the death of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, founder and former leader of al-Qaeda, and at least two of his compatriots were killed May 1 by U.S. Special Forces in an assault on a large house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, more than 20 miles outside of Islamabad.

"The boogeyman, and for many, the face of terrorism, has finally been put down," said John Horgan, director of the ICST. "The event will serve as a badly needed morale-boost for U.S. troops serving overseas, and, as we approach the 10-year mark since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the news may come as some small relief to those bereaved friends and families for whom the pending anniversary will be especially difficult."

"Surprisingly, bin Laden was not found where everybody predicted he would be, in a remote tribal area," Horgan said. "The event is most likely the result of an intensive and long-running intelligence operation, and it’s equally likely that the Pakistani security services played a key role in this."

He cautioned that bin Laden has not been operationally involved with al-Qaeda for some time and said that fact changes the way the assassination will affect the movement.

"While this is a critical psychological blow to Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the reality is that bin Laden has not occupied an operational role in the movement for several years now. The Al Qaeda that existed in early 2001 has long gone," Horgan said.

Mia Bloom, a fellow at ICST, concurred, and said the future of al-Qaeda's leadership is not clear-cut.

"It’s highly unlikely that bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will effectively galvanize the movement. He is a deeply divisive figure and he doesn’t ooze an ounce of the charm that bin Laden in his heyday did, nor does he even come close to the kind of allure on offer by Anwar al-Awlaki (leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- AQAP). In effect, bin Laden has no real replacement."

However, Bloom said, bin Laden’s death won’t mean an end to the threat of terrorist attacks aimed at Americans.

"As far as the future is concerned, the death of one man, even bin Laden, will not end attacks against Americans," she said. "Targeted assassinations rarely result in the end of a terrorist organization and, in fact, might increase the likelihood of competition among the younger generation of al-Qaeda affiliates to lead the movement in the future."

Horgan agreed.

"Undoubtedly, the more significant threat in recent years has been from AQAP, who were inspired by bin Laden’s ideas. His assassination may provide them, and Anwar al-Awlaki in particular, with the opportunity to be the new face of terrorism," Horgan said.

Dedicated to the scientific study of terrorism and political violence, the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, based in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, engages in research, teaching and training activities that are international in scope and multidisciplinary in nature. The Center is committed to promoting and engaging in data-driven empirical research performed to the highest academic standards.

For more information, or media inquiries, contact Alex Novak, ICST executive director, at anovak@psu.edu or 814-863-9550. To learn more about the ICST, visit http://www.icst.psu.edu/ online.

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Last Updated May 02, 2011