Bin Laden Hit Is a Symbolic Victory for U.S. and Obama

While the U.S. military has advanced significantly during its fight against extremists in Afghanistan, the killing of bin Laden is an achievement that may finally resonate with the Middle Eastern consciousness.

Despite the hours of celebration in the United States, the killing of Osama bin Laden is far from being a deathblow to al-Qaida, nor will it end the activities of the myriad of groups operating under the global jihad umbrella.

Al-Qaida isn’t an ordered, structured organization, and bin Laden wasn't the commander of the extremist Muslims operating in Yemen, Iraq, or North Africa, and even not of those using his name in the Gaza Strip. He did not give those groups orders, and most of them were able to fund themselves without receiving assistance from the Tora Bora mountains or from Pakistan. Moreover, his death will serve as a catalyst to attempts by countless members of Muslim extremist groups to conduct revenge attacks against American and Western targets.

Osama bin Laden - AFP - May 2, 2011

But, and this is a big "but," his killing is nothing less than a triumph for American military deterrence. It is a symbolic victory in a war whose battlefield is public opinion, and where symbolism rules supreme.

The fact that a team of U.S. solders can reach bin Laden's hideout and take him out, without any casualties on the American side, sends a message to all al-Qaida supporters: The United States is no longer a paper tiger and it has the ability to reach anyone who tries to hurt it. Or, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, this is "a lesson to the whole world."

And perhaps one picture taken in Jenin this morning clarifies more than anything the meaning of this killing for the entire Middle East: The image shows an Islamic Jihad operative wounded during the Intifada by IDF fire, holding bin Laden's picture and mourning his death.

It's hard not to admire the way in which U.S. intelligence managed to get to bin Laden - without drones or precision airstrikes. It was a ground operation that included a break-in at the house on the outskirts of Islamabad in which the al-Qaida leader was hiding, and shooting him in the head.

This kind of operation requires not only amazingly precise intelligence, but also a skilled force capable of making its way to the house undetected, and then breaking in. The lack of American casualties may also indicate how great was the al-Qaida leader's surprise that the soldiers had reached him and his men. One can only hazard a guess as to how many times the story of the bin Laden operation will be retold, and even receive the Hollywood treatment, given that this was a man the U.S. intelligence had been trying to reach well before 9/11.

It probably won't hurt President Barack Obama ahead of an upcoming election year, with this significant achievement to be added to his credit, despite his utter lack of military experience.

Obama, who has been perceived as a weak figure desperately attempting to nudge closer to the Muslim world, succeeded where George W. Bush failed. He managed to bring the head of the great Satan to the American public without embarking on two wars. And indeed Obama, who was so criticized for his foreign policy, for his misunderstanding of the Middle East and the Muslim world, reached such a symbolic victory: clean, quick, without casualties, and even almost without any casualties from among the civilians surrounding bin Laden during his final moments.

This operation, swift as it was, does quite a bit to alter Obama's image from that of a president who shies away from military confrontations or using force. But primarily it rehabilitates the image of the U.S. military, which, while making substantial gains in Afghanistan in recent years, has lacked the kind of symbols that would strike a chord with the Middle Eastern consciousness.

Despite the celebrations and achievements, the war against global jihad is like emptying the sea with a teaspoon, as former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter once said. This is highlighted by the raised level of alert at U.S. embassies across the world.

Bin Laden will probably be succeeded by an operational successor. It may be Ayman al-Zawahri (unless he was wounded in the attack) and perhaps a less familiar figure. But no successor would be able to recreate the kind of aura surrounding bin Laden. But from now on, any replacement or successor will know that he is living on borrowed time.