The Hydra and the Snake: The Death of Osama Bin Laden

At 11:00 AM, five years ago Monday, sailors on the USS Carl Vinson watched the shrouded body of Osama bin Laden slide into the North Arabian Sea. Thus concluded a ten-year manhunt which, from the fall of the Twin Towers to the secret drama of a midnight raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, helped define a new era in American foreign policy.

In real terms, the search for Bin Laden played only a small part in a much larger war against a complex threat. Yet his fate underscores an idea as old as war itself, one which remains a key component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy today – the concept that leadership decapitation, the capture or killing of core decision-makers, can destroy a militant group’s ability to fight. Half a decade after Bin Laden’s death, the world is much changed but seemingly no less dangerous. So the question remains, does cutting the head of the snake destroy the body? Or, like the mythological hydra, does it only leave room for two new heads to sprout in its place? 

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