Learning From Bin Ladens Death

With the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and accelerating plans to draw down troops in Afghanistan, it’s a natural moment to look back at the decade-long “War on Terror” and consider how far we’ve come. Are we safer now than we were before the launch of our massive counterterrorism effort?
Those who argue that we are safer point to the killing of major al Qaeda leaders, destruction of the group’s logistic and financial capabilities, the success of drone attacks against terrorist targets, as well as the Arab Spring movements that — hopefully — represent an alternative engine of political change in places like the Middle East.
Critics note these victories, but focus on the struggle ahead. They point to the continued and, according to some, improved ability of al Qaeda and its affiliates to recruit young Muslims worldwide. This wave of radicalization has already led to dangerous plots and bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and in Europe, and potentially in the United States as well.
In other words, our “kinetic” efforts to defeat the terrorists have been successful, but radicalization and extremism continue to spread worldwide. As terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, recently quipped, “You can’t kill’em all.”
Phillip Mudd, the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center deputy director between 2003-2005, put it this way in a Washington Post column last year: “There have been more arrests of al Qaedist Americans in the past few years than ever before. These are people on the West Coast and the East Coast, in the South and in the Midwest, all with their homegrown plots, coming at us at a rate that we did not see in 2005.”
The long-term challenge, then, is prevention — disrupting radicalization, and eradicating it where it has set in. To succeed, we need a better understanding of just how efforts to radicalize young people take hold. We need to identify with far greater precision radicalization’s essential causes and germination. We need to pierce its appeal and grip on young people.
In an important sense, radicalization is a psychological phenomenon, and the good news is that we have learned a lot about it in the past decade. The work of such social scientists as Scott Atran, Mark Sageman, Rick McCauley, Ariel Merari, Fernando Reinares, and many others offer intriguing, empirically based insights about aspects of radicalization and deradicalization.
Nonetheless, the insights from this research often have been piecemeal and fragmented. They typically have focused on a single psychological factor suspected of contributing to radicalization. Some scientists looked at personality attributes that characterize terrorists, others at social networks, ideology or emotional traumas that may push individuals to extremism.
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