During a brief exchange about national security at last night's Vice Presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano asked the candidates, "Do you think the world today is a safer or more dangerous place than it was eight years ago? Has the terrorist threat increased or decreased?"
Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine immediately responded, "The terrorist threat has decreased in some ways, because bin Laden is dead." He soon segued into selling Hillary Clinton's plan to defeat ISIS:
First, we've got to keep taking out their leaders on the battlefield. She was part of the team that got bin Laden, and she'll lead the team that will get Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.
Kaine repeatedly invoked the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden as evidence that Hillary Clinton's actions as Secretary of State helped make the world "safer," and also declared that al Qaeda was all but crippled by the death of bin Laden—despite the fact that he died while holed up in a house in Pakistan with his feuding wives, years after he ceased to be involved in any kind of operational leadership role with al Qaeda.
While Kaine might have a point about the fact that Trump's pledges to "bomb the shit out of ISIS" and re-institute waterboarding of terror suspects are not much of a plan, the Democratic ticket's reliance on the go-to line of "We're going to go after Baghdadi" is a classic example of shallow election-year sloganeering.
Clinton herself promised to go after ISIS' leader at the first presidential debate, as well as at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) forum, and many times on the campaign trail. If that's the number one priority, then it's worth asking: Is the Obama administration not going after Baghdadi now? Are they just letting ISIS' leader wander the self-declared Islamic State caliphate free from the threat of U.S. airstrikes?
Of course not, but as noted in The Guardian last month, Clinton intends to put a "concerted focus" on "going after" Baghdadi. But why does anyone believe decapitating the leadership of ISIS would "defeat" them?
Furthermore, reports of al Qaeda's death have been greatly exaggerated. Though it may not bear much resemblance to the top-down organization bin Laden lead over a decade ago, al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) controls a major port city in Yemen—in large part thanks to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia's war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. AQAP also claimed responsibility for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and has proven capable of launching terror attacks via smaller cells in Burkina Faso. Other al Qaeda "franchises" control significant amounts of territory in Syria, North Africa, and Somalia.
Even ISIS itself is an offshoot of al Qaeda, and with their billions in oil revenue and U.S.-made weapons pilfered from the Iraqi army and Syrian rebel groups, they seem to be doing just fine without bin Laden around.
In an essay published around the time of the five-year anniversary of bin Laden's killing last May, the RAND Corporation's Brian Michael Jenkins wrote that targeting a terrorist group's leadership can disrupt its operational abilities in the short term, but also noted that a number of studies show taking out terror leaders "affected neither the rate of terrorist attacks nor the likelihood of organizational collapse. And however careful the targeting, such strikes can produce civilian casualties, provoke anger, and incite further terrorist attacks in revenge." Jenkins concludes, "Was al Qaeda hurt by the demise of its charismatic leader? Certainly. Is the world a safer place because of it? Probably not."
Ultimately, the more the U.S. engages in bombing foreign countries, the easier it is for any Islamist extremist groups to recruit. Young men born the same year as the 9/11 attacks are now old enough to be commissioned to engage in jihad and are much more likely to be motivated by a family member's death in a drone strike meant for someone else than by any allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden.
When Clinton and her surrogates brag about killing symbolic leaders as "smart power," we should remember that pithy campaign talking points do not a sound foreign policy make.