Much commentary in the media has centered around what effect killing Osama Bin Laden will have on al Qaeda. Was he still necessary to its functioning? How much effect will his death have on al Qaeda operations? While these are reasonable issues to discuss, there is a much bigger issue that deserves attention.
During the operation, the US captured a large number of computers, memory drives, and documents. Considering how secure Bin Laden seems to have felt in that residence (he had close family member staying with him), he may have felt just as comfortable keeping sensitive information there. The captured devices and documents may well contain huge amounts of useful and actionable intelligence.
The captured information is going to be exploited rapidly and vigorously. Raids and captures will be the most visible result. Those raids and captures are going to generate more intelligence which will lead to more raids and captures…. This is going to take some time to play out, on the order of months or even years. Right now it is unclear how far it will go. On the one hand, it could ultimately lead to catastrophic damage to al Qaeda’s organization. On the other, it is possible that al Qaeda will adapt to this assault and regenerate itself, resulting in little long-term effect.
Another result of the raid and captured information will be its effect on Pakistan. The raid is embarrassing to the Pakistani military, given how bin Laden was hiding in plain sight. But beyond this, the captured information could prove even more embarrassing. For example, it may contain the smoking gun, identifying who within the Pakistani establishment is supporting and protecting al Qaeda and how they are doing it.
The effect of this is much more speculative. The information could be used by the US to gain leverage in dealing with Pakistan, if only for a while, leading to increased Pakistani cooperation, or at least acquiescence, with regard to US actions against al Qaeda. This could give the US a little more freedom of action within Pakistan and perhaps slightly more cooperation from the Pakistani military and intelligence services. It could even lead to some organizational reshuffling within the Pakistani establishment. While Pakistan’s leadership may publicly disavow involvement with al Qaeda and complain about violation of sovereignty, privately, it may be a different story.
This story is not just about one raid and one kill. In fact, the story is just the beginning. While killing bin Laden is clearly a major moral victory, from an operational point of view the information captured may ultimately prove to be a much bigger prize. The months ahead should be very interesting. Stay tuned….