Getting Bin Laden: Does It Matter?

David Tucker

October 1, 2001

On October 25, USA Today reported that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had said that we might never catch Osama bin Laden. When asked about this later in the day at a press briefing, the Secretary backtracked. Under pressure from reporters, he said "I think we’re going to get him."

The more important question is, does it matter?

For three reasons, getting bin Laden should not be a priority. First, as the Secretary said in his interview with USA Today and has said many times before, it will be very difficult to catch bin Laden. If getting him becomes the criterion for success, it will be very hard for us to succeed. Over time, this will play into bin Laden’s hands and make him stronger by increasing his mythic role as a defier of American power.

Second, as we make bin Laden stronger by focusing on him we risk making ourselves weaker. Putting the emphasis on bringing bin Laden to justice or bringing justice to him makes what we are involved in sound like a criminal proceeding. It is not. It is a war, as the President has said. What bin Laden and those who work with him have done transcends mere criminality. What we can and must do in response transcends the circumscribed powers of the police. Police work, leading to arrests of terrorists, for example, is important, but we must not limit ourselves to such work. Without hesitation or doubt, the requirements of war should guide us now.

Third, making bin Laden the focus of our efforts will limit the scope of our campaign. In response to the September 11 attacks, the President announced a war on terrorists with a global reach. Bin Laden is only part of that problem. Focusing on him reduces the campaign to an effort to get one man, who happens to be in one place. If we get him, there will be pressure to end the campaign. But as the Secretary told USA Today, if bin Laden "were gone tomorrow, the same problem would exist." Al Qa’ida, bin Laden’s organization, is bigger than bin Laden and is itself only one part of the network of terrorists with a global reach. This argues for de-emphasizing bin Laden and focusing on the bigger problem.

The bigger problem we face is the terrorist networks and the States that support them. These should be the priority of the war against terrorism. In the current phase of the campaign, this means attacking al Qa’ida and removing the Taliban from power.

Attacking al Qa’ida is not solely a police task. The arrests of al Qa’ida’s members and sympathizers in the United States and abroad, as noted above, is a good thing, but there are other non-judicial measures we can and must bring to bear against them.

The Taliban must go because we publicly warned them that they would pay a price if they did not stop supporting the activities of al Qa’ida. Given what their support for al Qa’ida brought about, if we do not remove them from power, our threats against other state sponsors will have no meaning.

If we get the networks and the state sponsors, then we will render the leaders irrelevant, as we have done with others in the past. As they become irrelevant their power decreases and as their power decreases, it will become easier for us to get them. But getting the leaders, as the Secretary implied at first, is not the most important thing we must do.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.