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How much did bin Laden cost us?

The numbers are murky, but there’s enough information to conclude that the toll is astronomical.

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An Amtrak police officer and a sniffer dog patrol Union Station in Washington on May 6, 2011, five days after al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in Pakistan. Intelligence seized from bin Laden's compound showed his al-Qaeda network pondered strikes on US trains on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, US officials said. (Stephane Jourdain/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Osama bin Laden is dead. Or is he?

That’s a debate that may go viral, birther-style, among segments of the Muslim world unless the Obama administration releases images of his corpse — or better yet, video of the Islamic rights bestowed on him aboard the USS Carl Vinsson.

But one thing is for certain: as evil as Osama bin Laden was, he was also a brilliant strategist. Even with his body at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, he remains a fearsome foe.

Beyond the wars that he triggered and the deaths he wrought, he is among the most influential people of our time, having changed the world — for the worse — in ways big and small.

Bin Laden reshaped the American psyche and landscape. Some of the changes are as subtle as they are seemingly banal: the massive planters and jersey walls that have cropped up since 9/11 surrounding office towers and public buildings; the striptease expected of us before we board planes.

Other changes are as sweeping as they get: the government's shadowy, far-reaching national security and intelligence apparatus “so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it's fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe,” according to last year’s haunting Washington Post investigation.

All he had to do was inspire a half-witted extremist to stuff a crude bomb in his shoe or underpants, and he could change our standards of decency. You can imagine him basking in news of car bombings in Baghdad and drone killings in Pakistan, knowing that these reports would bring further anguish and alienate the United States from the Muslim world.

But scaring us was only part of bin Laden’s mission. Terror — as American policymakers largely failed to realize — was a tactic rather than an objective. 

Although many Americans bought into the logic that bin Laden wanted nothing more than to kill and destroy, the spectacular telegenic mass murder — as staged on 8/7/98 at the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; on 9/11/01 in New York and Washington; on 10/12/02 in Bali nightclubs; on 3/11/04 in Madrid’s train system; on 7/7/05 in London’s underground, among others — was in fact a means to an end.

It is curious that bin Laden was killed at this moment, when citizens across the Middle East are rebelling against oppressive rulers, and when U.S. lawmakers are confronting America’s budget problems. One of bin Laden’s primary political objectives was to eliminate infidel Americans from the Muslim soil, and to liberate Muslims from oppressive and (in his view) apostate regimes supported by the West.

In recent years, his movement has lost support in the Islamic world, according to the Pew Research Center, due largely to the widespread carnage that it perpetrated on fellow Muslims.

But in the tumultuous years ahead, as the Middle East struggles to reinvent itself, time will tell whether his message will catch on again, the same way extremism has clamored for a foothold in other newly liberated societies, such as Indonesia a decade ago. Now, with the charismatic tyrant out of the way, this is less likely to happen.

As for America’s dire financial situation, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out in Foreign Policy, bin Laden’s strategic objective was to bankrupt the United States, just as he had helped it bleed the Soviet Union by miring it in a long and costly conflict in Afghanistan. It was the only way a small group of poorly-funded extremists could hope to defeat a super-power.

“One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy,” Gartenstein-Ross writes. “The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991. Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise.”

Bin Laden obviously hasn’t bankrupted the United States. But how much has he cost us? The numbers are murky, given the secrecy that shrouds post 9/11 national security. But there’s enough information to conclude that the toll is astronomical.

The material costs to the United States of bin Laden’s attacks are only a small part of the total, but they are by no means insignificant.

The embassy bombings in Africa led to a multi-billion dollar increase in diplomatic security. The repair for the USS Cole was estimated at nearly $250 million. The 9/11 attacks are estimated to have cost New York’s economy $27 billion in the 15 months following the attack, rising to $50 billion to $100 billion if broader economic harm is included.