Navy SEAL Adm. Eric T. Olson described the killing of bin Laden by a special operations raid on May 2 as a near-killing blow for what he called "al-Qaida 1.0," as created by bin Laden and led from his hideout in Pakistan.
Olson said the group had already lost steam because of the revolts of the Arab Spring, which proved the Muslim world did not need al-Qaida to bring down governments, from Tunisia to Egypt.
"I think the death of bin Laden was an uppercut to the jaw," Olson told a packed crowd, opening the Aspen Security Forum. "It just knocked them on their heels."
Olson echoed other administration officials who are predicting al-Qaida's demise if a few more key leaders can be eliminated.
But the four-star admiral warned of the fight to come against what he called al-Qaida 2.0, with new leaders like American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, who Olson said understands America better than Americans understand him.
"It will morph, it will disperse," he said of the movement. "It will become in some ways more westernized, (with) dual passport holders" and "fewer cave dwellers," he said.
Olson said others like al-Awlaki will probably refine their message to appeal to a wider audience, and seek ungoverned spaces to operate from, where they can smuggle in weapons and train their followers. He described how current offshoots like al-Awlaki's al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen are cooperating with militants in Somalia, describing what he called an "invisible bridge" between the two.
Nor did the admiral write off bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahri. He said al-Zawahri had not yet put his stamp on the original organization, so U.S. counterterrorist forces do not yet know what kind of threat his leadership will present.
Olson agreed with the White House's newly announced policy to strike terrorists through focused action rather than full-scale invasion, preferably by training and working with the host country's forces. He cautioned against thinking raids would solve all U.S. foreign policy problems.
"Counterterrorism without counterinsurgency is a flawed concept," he said, a riposte to those in Washington, who argue you can simply go in and kill the enemy without sending at least a small unit of troops to work with the country where the enemy is based.
"This idea of being able to wait over the horizon and spring over and chop off heads doesn't really work," he said, describing the "yin and yang" of special operations as including capture-and-kill raids as well as long-term engagement with host countries' militaries. The latter involves U.S. troops "developing long-term relationships, learning languages, meeting people, studying histories, learning black markets."
"If you don't know that, you won't be an effective counterterrorism force," Olson said.
Olson said the fight against all versions of al-Qaida could keep U.S. special operations troops deploying at the same pace for another decade, even as U.S. conventional forces draw down from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The admiral said that will keep the pressure on his already frayed force, which is now seeing the departure of many mid-level troops who joined just after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and have gotten worn out by the pace of constant deployments. The Special Operations Command has nearly doubled in size since the attacks, from 32,000 to some 60,000, including units like SEALs, Army Special Forces Green Berets and Rangers, and Marine Special Operators. But Olson said nearly half that force is deployed at any one time, and that tempo is taking its toll on troops and their families, resulting in divorces or separations.
Currently the longest serving Navy SEAL, Olson is less than two weeks from retiring after 38 years of service. He'll be replaced by another Navy SEAL: Adm. Bill McRaven, the commander of the raid that got bin Laden.