A recent program sponsored by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab in Denver, The CELL, brought together a former Colorado governor and two experts on the Middle East to discuss national security and foreign policy and how events both there and in North Africa are transforming the world.
The program, held as part of The CELL’s community public education, had been scheduled for several weeks. But a few days before the May 10 forum, Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals about 35 miles from the capital of Pakistan. With that development the emphasis of the discussion changed a bit and the impact of Bin Laden’s death was brought to the forefront.
The moderator of the program, held at the Seawell Ballroom at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, was former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, the current director of Colorado State University’s New Energy Economy.
Also participating were Bruce Hoffman, the Director for the Center for Peace and Security Studies, Director of the Security Studies Program and a tenure professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service; and Ambassador Chris Hill, the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from April 2009 until August 2010. He joined the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies in September 2010.
The first question posed by Ritter concerned the effect the death Osama Bin Laden has on al-Qaeda’s vitality as an organization.
Hoffman, who previously held the Corporate Chair of Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and was Scholar in Residence for Counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency between 2004 and 2006, said he thinks the impact is crushing. “Certainly because of the intelligence materials that were seized from his villa in Abbottabad, illustrate that Bin Laden was far more actively involved at all levels of al-Qaeda operation. Bargaining, planning, communications liaison and propaganda, of course. So his loss is enormous in that respect.”
Hill, a career member of the Foreign Service whose prior assignment was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said his demise is enormous. “Obviously there’ll be a succession crisis and I think the succession issue will be played out in terms of various factions trying to show how outrageous they can be. But I would like to make the point that in the region, in the Middle East that al-Qaeda was a bit of yesterday’s story. For us it was very real and I think everyone in the room had the same reaction I did, which was to open a bottle of beer when we heard that that guy was gone. But nonetheless, I think in the region there was a sense that al-Qaeda’s time was gone and maybe there were some other issues that the region ought to get serious about, namely dealing with the economy and dealing with corruption and the other issues that many people in the world are concerned about.”
Ritter asked whether we should worry about retaliation if one accepts that there are these other places where al-Qaeda’s still very much alive.
“I think there are a lot of reasons to be concerned in the weeks and months, even years ahead,” responded Hoffman. “I think we’ll continue to be taking our shoes off at the airport for some time to come. I think it is an organization that’s in trouble. It’s an organization that’s been somewhat franchised over the years, but nonetheless, an organization where several factions will vie for leadership and I think they will be doing so in a way that could be at our expense.”
“There’s a real vigilance because I think there’s the expectation that they’re going to try to come after us,” said Hill. “There weren’t a lot of demonstrations about the fact that we took him down because everyone in the region understood that that’s what you do. When someone comes after you, you go after him. But I think now there’s also going to be some effort at payback,” Hill added.
“Now that said, there have been some of our generals in Afghanistan reporting that they don’t see that kind of reaction yet and I think it will take some time to regroup. But I think we have to contend with the fact that this is a very emotional issue. I think for us it’s very emotional and for that side it’s also very emotional and I don’t think we can expect them to just wave white flags and say, ‘No, we’re not going to go after Americans.’”