It's now a matter of history that Navy SEALs killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan in May 2011.
But the story isn't necessarily over. During a lecture Wednesday, author Peter Bergen detailed the events leading up to that operation, what bin Laden's death meant to the United States and where his terror network stands today.
Bergen, a CNN national security analyst, is one of a handful of Westerners to interview bin Laden face to face. His latest book, “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad,” is the story of that search.
He spoke to about 1,000 people as part of the Omaha Town Hall Lecture Series, a sold-out membership series now in its 49th year. Bergen's talk at St. Andrew United Methodist Church was the series' season opener.
Bergen said al-Qaida continues to play a role in world events. Al-Shabab, the Somali terror group that killed more than 60 in an attack on a Nairobi, Kenya, shopping mall, is part of al-Qaida.
“So unfortunately, even though bin Laden himself is dead, his ideas continue to linger on,” said Bergen, who has spent much of his professional life as a print and television journalist writing about al-Qaida.
But bin Laden himself had become less relevant by the time of his death. At the same time, killing him was important as a means of restoring American honor and bringing justice to the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Bin Laden's organization has continued to suffer losses. CIA drones have killed at least 30 top al-Qaida leaders.
“His organization is on life support,” Bergen said. “The al-Qaida that attacked us on 9/11 is not capable of doing such an attack again, in my view.”
The organization's affiliates, however, have continued to stage attacks. Al-Qaida in Yemen almost succeeded in bringing down Northwest Flight 253 in 2009 with an underwear bomb and tried to down a cargo flight over Chicago in 2010. Yet that group, too, is under pressure from CIA drones.
Like a lot of history's most effective leaders, Bergen said, bin Laden “was able to put a single narrative out there that people could understand. ... Basically that 'the West is at war with Islam, the United States is leading that war and we need to take revenge.' ”
Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly said, while lying in a boat surrounded by law enforcement officers, that he was fighting for his Muslim brothers.
“So there's always going to be some takers for his ideology,” said Bergen, who visited bin Laden's Abbottabad compound before the Pakistani government demolished it.
Bergen also is the author of the New York Times best-seller, “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda.”
Yet attacking a Nairobi shopping mall, he said, isn't the same as attacking the United States, especially post-9/11.
“It's very hard to attack the United States right now, for all sorts of reasons,” he said.
Before 9/11, there were 16 people on the no-fly list. Today, there are 20,000.
Before 9/11, the FBI and CIA barely spoke to each other. Now they're in constant contact, and the CIA has thousands of intelligence analysts.
The United States also has created the Department of Homeland Security and stepped up joint counterterrorism efforts.
Another important factor: Before 9/11, there was no public awareness that terrorism was a problem.
That, too, has changed, he said. Passengers took down both the shoe bomber in December 2001 and the underwear bomber eight years later. A street vendor spotted smoke from an SUV in Times Square in 2010 and tipped off police to that bomb attempt.
Bergen also said, in response to an audience member's question, that he believes the United States is well-prepared for chemical weapons such as those used recently in Syria.
“We will see other terrorism,” Bergen said, “but we're in a very, very different situation than we were on 9/11, and killing bin Laden was very helpful on multiple levels.”