Al Qaeda's 'Number 2 Leader' Killed—Feel Safer?

Is there anybody left in al Qaeda to kill? Yesterday we killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, its "number two leader," and last year we killed its number one leader, and it seems like we've killed the number three leader at least three times.

alqaeda2.JPGOf course, that's the problem: al Qaeda keeps filling these abruptly vacated positions. There have been lots of jokes about this, but a "senior US official" apparently had a straight face when he told the Washington Post, "This would be a major blow to 'core' al-Qaeda, removing the No. 2 leader twice in less than a year." Yes, either a major blow to al Qaeda or a testament to the futility of President Obama's approach to fighting terrorism.

Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation goes with the former interpretation. He writes that "the terrorist group that launched the 9/11 attacks is now more or less out of business."

Bergen knows a ton more about al Qaeda than I do (and is a friend), so I won't disagree too forcefully with that assessment. But I will say that, if he's right, it doesn't matter much. Even if al Qaeda per se goes out of business, this killing won't have made us much safer in the long run and may have made us less safe.

Why? Because the war on terrorism is like the war on drugs. We keep locking up drug dealers, but the demand for drugs is so strong, and selling them so lucrative, that there's always someone to fill the imprisoned drug dealer's shoes. Even if we put a whole drug-selling gang out of business--let's call it the al Qaeda of cocaine--a new drug distribution network will emerge.

The good news is that the war on terrorism is not, in principle, as challenging as the war on drugs. After all, the thing that keeps drawing people into the drug dealing business is built into human nature: the basic structure of brain cells makes cocaine feel good.

In contrast, the thing that draws people into the anti-American terrorism business--hatred of America--is a transient historical fact. Whereas cocaine has always felt good, hating America hasn't always felt good--at least, not to as many people as it feels good to now.

So how do we reduce the number of people who hate America? It's a tough, multi-dimensional problem, but here's something that probably isn't helping: endlessly raining drone strikes on Muslims. The strike that killed al-Libi also killed more than a dozen other people and was the third drone strike in Pakistan in three days.

Meanwhile, over in Yemen, as the Washington Post reported last week, "an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States."

What exactly are "al-Qaeda-linked militants"? Are they part of al Qaeda proper? Or of an "affiliate" of al Qaeda? Or is the link even less formal than that? It doesn't matter. Putting al Qaeda per se out of business isn't the goal, anyway. The goal is putting anti-American terrorists out of business. So if the tactic that killed "al Qaeda's number two" in Pakistan is at the same time expanding and energizing a terrorist network in Yemen, that just doesn't strike me as a very effective tactic.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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