The biggest manhunt in history is over. U.S. President Barack Obama announced last night that American military operatives had raided Osama bin Laden’s compound outside Islamabad, Pakistan, killed bin Laden and buried his body at sea. One of bin Laden’s sons was also killed, as were three other people.
Yet by the time the U.S. finally caught up with him, bin Laden was seen by many as more of a symbol of terrorism than a major threat. The political upheaval throughout the Arab world of the past few months is not associated with Al Qaeda, nor does it espouse the violence that is the hallmark of bin Laden and his followers.
Bin Laden’s death introduces an unknown into the global economy, said James Mirrlees, Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences in 1996. "This reduces somewhat the threat from terrorist attacks, but it’s increased the uncertainty. Exactly how you think that out in terms of your investments is not so clear. The level of uncertainty is higher for the moment. What happens is that any [terrorism] event is going to get even more attention."
That uncertainty, Mirrlees added, is because there is no way to know what, if any, retaliation by bin Laden’s followers will occur and when. "We don’t seem to know much about the people who follow him and his actions," he noted.
But the ability for his followers to commit revenge shouldn’t be overstated, countered Robert Mundell, a fellow Nobel Prize Winner in Economic Sciences in 1999. "[Bin Laden's death] removes a big risk, and adds a little risk, and that risk is retaliation," he said. "The big risk was the continued development and growth of power of al-Qaeda."
Mirrlees and Mundell were together on a panel at the Astana Economic Forum, in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan. Despite its proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was little discussion about the death of America’s most wanted terrorist. Kairat Kelimbetov, Kazakhstan’s former minister of economy and budget planning, noted the threat had not ended with Bin Laden.
"We have a huge challenge in fighting terrorism in the world, and it’s not over," he said. "What is the particular reason for terrorism, the core cause, that spawns terrorism in many countries? It is poverty. That’s what the global community should be focusing on, bringing these poor countries towards real development and stability."
Osama bin Laden "could be described as a victim of his own success – providing that ‘success’ applies to getting star billing as the world’s most wanted terrorist," says Ann Mayer, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, and an expert on the Middle East. "After attaining a high international profile with the 9/11 atrocity, he became so relentlessly hunted that he had to disappear from the international stage where he had enjoyed the spotlight."
As bin Laden became more and more isolated in order to "minimize the chances of detection and capture, he increasingly lost real practical relevance for the cause that he ostensibly championed," Mayer notes. He wound up "cowering behind the high walls of a villa in Abbottabad, far from the action and totally dependent on the services of an old-fashioned human courier to communicate with the outside world. [Global] events quickly outstripped his limited obscurantist vision, a vision that did not contemplate that youths dedicated to nonviolent protests would turn out to be far more powerful forces in changing the political environment than [he] had ever been."
Mayer compares bin laden to Carlos the Jackal, "who became the world’s most notorious terrorist" in the 1970s after his attack on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, "only to dwindle into a fugitive preoccupied with evading detection by intelligence operatives around the world…. For his diminished coterie of fervent followers, bin Laden may be a martyr whose death will incite revenge attacks, but for the Muslim world at large, there are much bigger issues on the agenda than the killing of a terrorist general who effectively abandoned his troops on the field for a luxury prison of his own making."
Howard Pack, Wharton professor of business and public policy whose interests include Arab and Asian economies, suggests that the death of bin Laden helps "to restore American deterrence against terrorism but has few substantive implications. The evolution of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria will be affected only to a limited extent. Bin Laden was not a factor in any of these nations, and their political and economic futures will be determined by the strength of domestic interest groups. His death has no obvious implications for any of the contending political factions…."
Regarding the costs of protecting against future terrorist incidents, Pack notes that "no economic benefit can be anticipated, since the network that was put together presumably remains intact. Most analysts of the Middle East attribute strategic thinking for Al Qaeda to Ayman al-Zawahiri who presumably remains alive."
Perhaps the most "jarring aspect of the operation," Pack adds, was the close proximity "and conspicuousness of bin Laden’s compound to the Pakistani military facilities. This, of course, does not bode well for the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, while it is a substantial symbolic and emotional victory and a testament of the abilities of the U.S. military and intelligence community, the impact [of bin Laden's death] will be limited."
Howard Kunreuther, co-director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, suggests that people will feel both a "great sense of relief that we got bin Laden but also a great deal of concern in terms of what might happen" should Al Qaeda seek revenge for bin Laden’s death. "There is so much uncertainty; we don’t know what Al Qaeda can and cannot do; we don’t know whether they are well organized or if they will have an influence on other groups who don’t like the U.S."
It was very important for President Obama to talk about the need for heightened security, Kunreuther notes, because the costs of not issuing that warning "could be extraordinarily high." And yet, because the President did in fact issue that warning, "we all now think about things in a different way…. It stirs up emotions and feelings that are very hard to control."