Military and political leaders don't yet know the full extent of the ramifications of the al Qaeda leader's death, for his terrorist organization or for the United States. But political and social psychologists are already considering questions and looking for answers in past research and in case studies of terrorist leaders and movements.
For al Qaeda and its potential recruits, Osama bin Laden's death will likely deal a blow on several levels, maintains social and political psychologist Arie Kruglanski, PhD, an investigator at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.
On an operational level, the charismatic leader's demise may mean even greater fragmentation of the already splintered group, since "there is evidence that [he] continued to sign off on the largest plots and operations of the al Qaeda network and its affiliates," Kruglanski says.
His demise is likely to affect the inspirational level as well, Kruglanski says.
"Bin Laden was a very special figure—he proved himself in battle, he sacrificed his material interests for the cause, and he was able to organize spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies." Because such qualities are difficult to emulate, his death "is likely to considerably harm al Qaeda's ability to turn enthusiastic youths to the cause of jihad," Kruglanski surmises.
Bin Laden's assassination may harm al Qaeda's cause on the motivational level—in essence by demonstrating that terrorism is ineffectual, Kruglanski maintains. Giving weight to this argument is President Obama's and the Navy Seals' orchestration of the attack, countering terrorist propaganda that the West "has a short attention span and lacks the patience and persistence to win the struggle," Kruglanski says.
Other signs point to the weakening of the organization as well, Kruglanski says. Besides the intense military pressure and attacks that have effectively targeted some of al Qaeda's ranks, the organization appears to be in dire financial straits, as documented in papers found in bin Laden's computer trove. Intelligence sources also suggest that central al Qaeda's call for a global jihad against the West is fading: As one example, "al Qaeda affiliates in the Arabian Penninsula and in the Maghreb seem to be less interested in attacking the West than in local struggles," Kruglanski says.
Yet he and others agree that bin Laden's death doesn't necessarily mean the death knell for the organization. Terrorism expert Jerrold Post, MD, professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University, says that while bin Laden did hold powerful sway over his followers, his decentralized leadership method will undoubtedly keep the organization alive longer than the West would like.
"Bin Laden's leadership style was that of 'chairman of the board of radical Islam Inc.'—he grew his corporation through mergers and acquisitions in other parts of the world," Post says. "Since the dismantling of al Qaeda central during the Gulf War, the organization has become much flatter and there has been much more authority and decision-making latitude for franchised terrorist organizations under al Qaeda's umbrella."
Similarly, Bryn Mawr College political and social psychologist and START researcher Clark McCauley, PhD, thinks it's premature to believe that bin Laden's former second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, won't be able to effectively fill bin Laden's shoes, despite a common sentiment that he lacks the right personality for the job.
"Whatever else al-Zawahiri is, he's very, very smart," says McCauley, author of the 2011 book "Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us." "And he's not just operationally smart, he's politically smart. While there's reason to hope he won't be nearly the inspiration that Osama bin Laden was, to assume he's a sure-fire force for splitting and dissolving al Qaeda central is being too sanguine, I think."
And at least in the short term, studies show that assassinations of terrorist leaders have led to retaliation. A 2005 study by Edward H. Kaplan, PhD, and colleagues, reported in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, (Vol. 28, No. 3), for instance, found that the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders boosted recruitment to their organizations. Another study by Kruglanski and Keren Sharvit, PhD, now under revision for a report for the Department of Homeland Security, found a short-term spike in terrorist attacks following the assassinations of major Hamas figures.
That said, Kruglanski believes any immediate acts of vengeance by al Qaeda over bin Laden's death won't last long, in part because after the initial shock and anger over such an event, "people tend to habituate, the larger overall agenda takes over and 'business as usual' is restored," he says.
However, while intensive military strategies have undermined the perceived efficacy of bin Laden's mission, they also fuel long-term outrage. In a larger sense, that means Western and Arab leaders and citizens alike must find ways to delegitimize violence and identify ways to restore a sense of power and significance to people who are oppressed—a trend hinted at by the peaceful protests leading to the "Arab Spring," Kruglanski says.
On our own soil, the al Qaeda leader's death may help Americans to collectively move beyond a heretofore unadmitted emotion: humiliation, says START's McCauley.
That humiliation—which he defines as a toxic mix of anger and shame—appeared at the time of the 9/11 attacks and was then suppressed because it was so difficult to admit to, he believes. This reaction was particularly intense because the attack came at a moment in which "the world was our oyster—the Soviet Union had fallen, and we had almost childish trust and confidence that we were in charge and that nothing could really go wrong anymore," he says.
The result was a 10-year feedback loop of anger at the attack, shame at not being able to do anything about it and anger at feeling ashamed, he theorizes.
Finding and extinguishing the source of our humiliation could promote a sense of closure for many Americans, McCauley says. Bin Laden's death "answers a problem we hadn't consciously grappled with or recognized," he posits, "and in that answer lies the possibility of getting out of Afghanistan, and the possibility of getting back to normal."
That said, it would be another psychological misstep—namely denial—to simply think our problems are over, adds George Washington University's Post.
"The personalization of public enemy No. 1—whether it's Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi—can often lead to the misguided assumption that with the death of that leader the crisis will be resolved and the threat will end," Post says. In his view, "there is every reason to believe that radical Islamist terrorism will continue to be a major threat to the United States and the West."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.