Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Lawrence Wright, staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, discussed the future of al Qaeda now that Osama bin Laden is dead.
First of all, who was Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda? Lawrence Wright said, in some ways his leadership was actually surprising.
[Bin Laden] wasn't really charismatic. He was more of a puzzling, quiet figure whose remoteness, and the oddity of the fact that he was a wealthy Saudi who engaged in Jihad. All of that added to his mystique but he was not exactly a charismatic speaker. Still, he was able to, through his example, inspire many young radical Muslims around the globe.
Wright wrote in 2008 that al Qaeda would have trouble maintaining a "coherent identity" without their leader. Now, with bin Laden dead, he said the prognosis for the terrorist group still looks pretty bad.
They're in a crisis now and it is going to be very difficult to find a successor to Osama bin Laden who can actually handle that organization and lead it into the future. There's no obvious, no charismatic successor. Ayman Al Zawahari, the guy that is going to be running it now is anti-charismatic...His own organization, Al Jihad in Egypt, he ran into the ground and I'll suspect he'll have the same kind of luck with al Qaeda.
In fact, Wright said, al Qaeda will find themselves in an identity crisis without a leader that has defined them. Bin Laden was the one of the only common factors between many different nationalist groups (including the Taliban) that identified with al Qaeda.
A lot of these affiliates are essentially nationalist groups that have run up this pirate flag of al Qaeda and say, this is our banner that we're flying now. The main person who was espousing this internationalist jihad was bin Laden. It was his cause, and because he became such a celebrity and initially he had money to fund it, other groups would associate with him. I think there's going to be a tremendous amount of centrifugal force as these groups begin to realize that their allegiance to al Qaeda hasn't gotten them anywhere...so I think that what we'll see is a degeneration of the internationalist jihad more back into what it naturally is, a group of nationalist causes that really don't have that much in common.
Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan — a country that's an American ally — when he was killed by the U.S. military, so what does this mean for the relationship between the two countries? According to Wright, the U.S. should have take a second look at this relationship a long time ago. Now, he said, the Pakistanis have a lot of explaining to do.
We've given them more than $11 billion in military aid since 9/11. That put the military and the intelligence community in Pakistan in the business of looking for bin Laden. He became a priceless asset for them and if they found him they would be out of business. It wouldn't be surprising if they were protecting him if he was so valuable. It's practically the only source of revenue. This is a country of 186 million people and fewer than two million of them pay taxes. A lot of American tax dollars went into that country and I think it has had many unintended consequences.
According to Wright, new attacks are very likely as a result of bin Laden's death.
We don't know how many other entrepreneurial efforts are underway or have been in the pipeline in the past. We don't know, for instance, if there was an operation in al Qaeda's portfolio that was supposed to be triggered by bin Laden's death. That could be. The signal of his death could start something.
As for how the public has reacted, Wright said, the calmer the better; the images of celebration around something like this can send the wrong message.
I think that a good sober moral tone is the appropriate one and to reflect on how much loss everybody's endured in the decade of bin Laden is the appropriate one. And a sense of relief is appropriate. And the feeling that maybe the page really can turn...I don't think the page could fully be turned until bin Laden was gone.
It took a lot of nerve to decide to do this face to face with no certainty that American troops wouldn't be killed in the operation or the operation might turn into something like the hostage rescue catastrophe in Carter's era. This was a well planned, well executed operation, but any such operation faces a lot more dangers than just sending cruise missiles out of the Arabian Sea. I think that they could ensure that this was done and the action was completed is the most significant take away.