What if Osama bin Laden Dies?


Terrorism won’t stop

One of these days, Osama bin Laden will die. What then? Will the war on terror wind down? We know with 100 percent certainty the answer. The war on terror will continue, and it will continue indefinitely until its costs to our leaders and their associates outweigh its benefits. At that point, our leaders will undeclare the war on terror. The anticipated benefits or aims, which are not to end terrorism in the world, I will treat in due course.

But for now let us suppose, absurd as this assumption is, that the aim of the war on terror really is to end terrorism in the world. Then it is easy to see that, even if bin Laden dies, this war must continue for such a length of time as to exceed any prior war one can name.

What is terrorism? Terrorists use criminal means to achieve political and other ends. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, terrorism is "the unlawful use of — or threatened use of — force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives." Terrorism, by this definition, differs from ordinary crime in two ways. Its objectives are broader and its targets are broader. Otherwise, it parallels both crime and warfare. Terrorists use methods of warfare against civilian and other targets whose effects are similar to the killings perpetrated by states when they fight each other.

The human race to date has not ended its political and other divisions, differences, and rivalries; nor has it ended resorting to criminal means to settle them, such as warfare and terrorism. It might be easier to climb Mt. Everest than to find more than a handful of conquerors in history who did not kill or use means of terror. Therefore, why should terrorism ever cease?

Terrorism actual and potential

The actual amount of terrorism is not large, but the potential amount is large. To gain perspective, consider ordinary crime.

On December 15, 1919, the FBI helped the Army’s Military Intelligence Division search for an army fugitive. It used an "Identification Order." This was the first wanted poster containing details about the stockade escapee. He was captured five months later. The IOs became a staple, often seen in post offices. Since their humble beginning, over 5,400 have been issued, or about 62 a year. John Dillinger was number 1217; Bonnie and Clyde were number 1227.

The FBI to this day has never run out of criminals to hunt down. It fights an eternal war on crime because the conditions that produce crime are always present. The IOs became the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1950. There have never been less than ten names on the list since it began and a great deal of competition to make the top ten.

The population of the U.S. is quite large, but not all that large. It’s about 300 million. In 1919, it was 105 million, which was large enough to produce many criminals. Arrests for violent and property crimes (excluding drug arrests) came to 2.2 million in the U.S. in 2005. That’s about 0.75 percent of the population.

No one knows the number of terrorist acts each year worldwide. Judging from the DOD’s definition, no one ever will know since terrorism shades over into unofficial wars and also occurs during official wars. Estimating and manipulating the estimates will, we can be sure, turn into government cottage industries. How do we classify the daily explosions in Iraq? How do we classify deaths produced by U.S. sanctions against Iraq? In some sense, terrorist acts are discrete things, while warfare is continuous killing. Although we can’t trust the published statistics and definitions vary, some estimates suggest 200—700 discrete terrorist acts a year worldwide. Suppose it’s 500 a year.

Whatever the number is, several facts are clear.

(1) The amount of terrorism is surely troublesome and horrible, but it is not large relative to other evils. Suppose quite arbitrarily that each terrorist act is 50 times as deadly as a typical criminal act. Therefore, to compare to ordinary crime, we might take 50 x 500 = 25,000 to find the number of terrorist-equivalent crimes. Murders in the U.S. run about 15,000 a year. The worldwide total is about eight times this or 120,000 a year. All these numbers are iffy but in the ballpark.

The world’s population is 6.5 billion people. At the crime rate of 0.75 percent in the U.S., the number of criminal arrests would be 48,750,000 worldwide each year, a gross guesstimate. The number of terrorist-equivalent crimes is trivial compared to crime in total.

Rummel’s estimate of death from warfare in the twentieth century is 169,000,000 or 1.69 million persons per year. Obviously death from terrorism is trivial compared to death from warfare, even recognizing that many war deaths can be classified as terrorist-caused deaths.

(2) The amount of potential terrorism is very large. Given the large world population and the endless possibilities of political, ethnic, and religious frictions, it does not take much of a shift toward conflict and concurrent criminal-type behavior to raise the terrorism significantly. If the 500 terrorist acts are the work of cells of 5 people each, then only 2,500 individuals are directly involved per year.

By the same token, terrorism could fall steeply back to levels of some decades ago if political situations within states stabilized and potential terrorists reverted to peaceful means to attain their agendas. The spread of cheap and violent technology facilitates terrorism, and so do the political, ethnic, and religious conditions in many states throughout the world.

If bin Laden dies, the number of potential terrorists still remains very, very large; and the number of reasons for terrorism remain very large. Therefore, if the war on terror aims to eliminate terrorism, it and terrorism will simply continue even after he dies. The powers-that-be will declare his death a great victory. It will be hailed as progress. Yet in the next breath we will be told that the war must continue and that this success shows us that we are making progress and must continue. Of course, whenever there is a failure, we will be told also that the war must continue.

The war on terror is like respiration. It’s necessary for life, life of the state, that is.

War on terror promotes terror

My numbers are speculative, but changing them by an order of magnitude won’t change the two conclusions. Terrorism is not a large risk now, and terrorism has a great deal of room to grow in size. It will grow, other things being equal, if the U.S. continues ineptly to prosecute its war on terror.

The U.S. starts major wars on political units in regions without stable states, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the British Empire, which managed to control the conquered territory using a mixture of its own and local organization, the U.S. in clueless fashion destroys the existing political structure and then tries to recreate a new one. This nation-building or state-building doesn’t work because the survival of every state is a delicate balancing act. States always impose net costs on the population; and so they cannot come into existence without logrolling and other vile means by which ruling coalitions gain power over the general population.

Having destroyed the existing power structure and unable to create a new one without actually running the country, the U.S. actions necessarily generate new resistance movements and new political struggles within those states. These insurgencies are bound to employ terrorist tactics to some extent. And so the U.S. war on terrorism will engender more terrorist acts if it continues to destroy state organizations. This has happened in Iraq. It is happening in Afghanistan as the Taliban regroup and counterattack. It will happen in Iran if the U.S. tries to remove the current power structure and replace it with another.

Real aims of war on terror

There is every reason to conclude that the war on terrorism does not aim to eliminate terrorism. That is a pretext. What are these reasons? (1) Terrorism can’t be eliminated. (2) Terrorism is not a large problem. (3) The costs of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are huge, at least one trillion dollars, compared to the costs imposed by terrorism. (4) The U.S. has caused more terrorism by starting two wars. (5) The U.S. has made no effort against terrorism in many parts of the globe. (6) The U.S. has made no significant effort to reduce its own political, military, and economic presence in foreign countries that entangles the U.S. in local power struggles. (7) Worldwide terrorism has risen since the U.S. began the war on terrorism.

This does not say that the U.S. will not kill terrorists when it has the chance or won’t devote resources to catching them. It will do both. But these activities do not centrally explain the war on terrorism. There was no compelling reason stemming from terrorism to attack either Afghanistan or Iraq. We know this all too well concerning Iraq. As for Afghanistan, the U.S. had been heavily involved there for almost 30 years. There was no reason to depose the Taliban regime and replace it with the standard set of Afghan warlords. The presence of bin Laden on Afghan soil provided an ideal pretext to invade. It was also easy to demonize the Taliban in the public’s eyes by the usual propaganda. But if the war had been fought to get bin Laden, why hasn’t he been caught?

The calculus that brought on the war on terror is not a Republican or a Democrat calculus, since both parties support the war wholeheartedly. They disagree on how to prosecute the war, but both want it and show no signs of undeclaring it. It is a political calculus, a complex and hidden weighing of various costs and benefits that we can discern. We can’t know how much each factor contributed to the final declaration of this war, but we can see the factors.

On the cost side, our political leadership is entirely reckless. They do not bear the costs. Americans at large do. The Congress will vote to absorb huge amounts of resources from Americans because it has the power to do so and because Americans have not yet cried out "Stop!"

On the benefit side, the war on terror provides important benefits to

  1. The state. It is the occasion of state power-grabs. In particular, President Bush prefers that the president be Cæsar, garbed with dictatorial powers over both the rest of the government and the lives of Americans. In addition, the war on terror seeks to make the state’s image of protection indispensable to every American as well as a long-running affair.
  2. The military-industrial complex. The contractors gaining from fat war contracts are well-known. Some of these link directly to key administration officials. But most of them contribute to both political parties.
  3. The state’s bureaucracies. The Department of Homeland Security is a prime beneficiary. Other beneficiaries are the many officials who make up Washington’s bureaucratic apparatus in other departments and agencies.
  4. The Israel lobby. This administration and both parties are larded with pro-Israel figures who had no little influence in instigating the war on terror.


The benefits reach to many others, such as various power-hungry intellectuals who champion internationalism. They reach to Americans who obtain the psychic benefits of flag-waving, cheering, blood-lust, phony patriotism, displays of U.S. military might. They reach to banking and oil interests. For example, Afghanistan is supposed to be a transit area for a new pipeline.

But I believe that the prime impelling motive or motives behind the war on terror are much deeper than any of the benefits listed above. The analysis of these motives is complex. They are summed up in one word: imperialism, a drive of one nation to expand and dominate other nations.

Throughout history, again and again, political units seek to expand. It is almost as if their survival depended on it, that if they did not expand, then they were doomed to be subjugated by others. In fact, those who fear subjugation the most might well be the ones most inclined to subjugate others. But imperialism goes beyond such a psychological explanation. It has economic, political, and ideological motives, all operating together, and all three do operate in the American case.

American imperialism ranges from soft to hard. Being run by the state, it is inept (soft or hard) and causes more problems than it solves. For example, although Iraq and Afghanistan are important geopolitically, the U.S. over-emphasis on terrorists and the ideology of democracy contributed to the disastrous means of dealing with them through wars or hard imperialism. Soft imperialism would have worked better. It would have been far easier to pay off Saddam Hussein and once again recruit him to the U.S. side or else pressure him in other ways. But the U.S. is equally inept at this approach, the results being apparent in earlier Middle East escapades.

Broad power struggles

My own emphasis is upon the political and, in particular, the security aspects as conceived by those in power. I emphasize the geopolitical factor as a prime motivating factor, and it is its rationality that needs to be assessed as well as its effectiveness. In the case of the war on terror, why have Iraq and Afghanistan been targets? They surround Iran, another nation the U.S. seeks to dominate.

More broadly, the idea held by our leadership is influence, control, or domination of Central Asia and the regions lying south. These regions include countries formerly in the Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. These form a large abutment against Russia and China, the other major powers in the world. They are also rich in undeveloped resources. South of them lie Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The inter-relations of all these states become important to the U.S. if it is to counter Russia and possibly China, although the latter is not expansionary. These nations are also important in preventing the growth and spread of radical Islam.

The fact that NATO is in Afghanistan is significant. It is the first such operation outside of its traditional European-Atlantic theatre. The European states in NATO view this region as critical to their interests too, although they characteristically have slower trigger-fingers than the U.S. Russia is not dead as a world power. The Russian state is reverting to form as it once again centralizes power, conducts overseas assassinations, and attempts to pressure Belarus and the Ukraine. The U.S., China, and Europe all are still engaged in a containment strategy against Russia as well as against one another. Having seen central European states and central Asian states peel off, they want to maintain and solidify this situation. Europe needs to stop radical Islam from regaining strength.


What if Osama bin Laden dies? What will change? My answer is — nothing.