The killing of the most-wanted international terrorist who sponsored a state dooms Al Qaeda’s future and turns attention on state-sponsored terrorism as the real global threat.

The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in a helicopter assault on a sprawling luxury mansion near Islamabad meshes with the past capture of other Al Qaeda leaders from Pakistani cities, highlighting that the real terrorist sanctuaries are located not along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and India but in the Pakistani heartland. This, in turn, underlines another fundamental reality — that the fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and de-radicalizing Pakistan, including by rebalancing civil-military relations there and reining in the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Other leading terrorist leaders captured in Pakistan since 9/11 include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s third in command; Abu Zubeida, the network’s operations chief; Yasser Jazeeri; Abu Faraj Farj; and Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the 9/11 coordinators. There was one common thread linking these captures — the Al Qaeda leaders were found living in important cities across Pakistan.  In this light, it is scarcely a surprise that bin Laden was found and killed not in Pakistan’s tribal region but near its capital.

If there was any surprise it was that bin Laden had been living in a military town located in Islamabad’s shadow — Abbottadad, which hosts a large Pakistani military base, an army academy, a military hospital, and the mansions of many senior serving and retired military and intelligence officers. This only underscores the major protection bin Laden received from elements of the Pakistani security establishment — protection that explains why it took the United States nearly a decade before it succeeded in its quest to capture him dead or alive. After the December 2001 Tora Bora battle, US intelligence had lost his trail completely.

A fresh trail was picked up only after the US, even at the risk of rupturing its long-standing ties with the Pakistani army and ISI, deployed a number of CIA operatives, Special Operations forces and contractors deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge of the Pakistani military. In the aftermath of the arrest of Raymond Davis — who was involved in a covert CIA. effort to penetrate the Lashkar-e-Taiba — the two most powerful figures in Pakistan, Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI head Ahmed Shuja Pasha, demanded the removal of all the American contractors used by the CIA in Pakistan as well as scores of US covert operatives and Special Forces troops.

But after the successful operation against bin Laden, comfortably living beside the Abbottadad military academy, the continuing need for independent U.S. intelligence operations in the Pakistani heartland has only been reinforced. For too long, the US had wrongly focused its attention on Waziristan, instead of Punjab, the citadel of ISI-backed jihadists, and Karachi, where several of the Afghan Taliban shura members have reportedly moved from Quetta. 

In fact, after the killing of the top terrorist leader who once sponsored a state, the international battle against transnational terrorism must focus on containing the potent threat from state-sponsored terrorism. Bin Laden’s death indeed leaves no senior figure in Al Qaeda other than Ayman al-Zawahiri. But al-Zawahiri — bin Laden’s personal physician and closest confidant — is not an operations man.

In recent years, with its senior operations men captured or killed and bin Laden holed up in Pakistan, the badly splintered Al Qaeda had already lost the ability to mount a major international attack or openly challenge US interests. With bin Laden’s demise, Al Qaeda is likely to wither away as an organization. Yet its dangerous ideology is expected to live on and motivate state-sponsored non-state actors. It will be such elements that mainly will have the capacity to launch major transnational attacks like 26/11. Even in Afghanistan, the US military’s main foe is not Al Qaeda but a resurgent Taliban, which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan.

That is why the spotlight is likely to turn on the terrorist complex in Pakistan and the role of, and the relationship between, state and non-state actors there. Significantly, as the CIA closed in on bin Laden, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time publicly linked the Pakistani military with the militants attacking US military forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan's home-grown Islamist militias continue to operate openly, and the Pakistani army and intelligence remain loath to sever their cosy ties with extremist and terrorist elements.

For the U.S., Pakistan poses a particularly difficult challenge. Despite providing $20 billion to Pakistan in counterterrorism aid since after 9/11, the U.S. has received grudging assistance, at best, and duplicitous cooperation, at worst. Today, amid a rising tide of anti-Americanism and the stroppy demands of Kayani and Pasha, U.S. policy on Pakistan is rapidly unravelling. Yet Pakistan, with one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, has become more dependent than ever on US aid.

Even as Americans exult over bin Laden’s killing, Washington must recognize that its failed policy on Pakistan has inadvertently made that country the world’s main terrorist sanctuary. Rather than help build robust civilian institutions there, Washington has continued to pamper the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the fresh $3 billion military aid package earmarked for the next fiscal year. After dictator Pervez Musharraf was driven out of office, the new civilian government ordered the ISI to report to the interior ministry, yet it did not receive support from Washington, allowing the army to quickly frustrate that move.

After coming to office, President Barack Obama actually implemented a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, turning the latter into the largest recipient aid of U.S. aid, although the Afghan Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda remnants remained ensconced in Pakistan. This only deepened U.S. involvement in fighting the wrong war and emboldened Pakistan to fatten the Afghan Taliban even as sustained U.S. attacks continued to severely weaken Al Qaeda.

Make no mistake: The scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates more from the Scotch whiskey-sipping generals than the rosary-holding mullahs. It is the self-styled secular generals who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jalaluddin Haqqani militia, and other groups. Yet by passing the blame for their continued terrorist-proxy policy to their mullah puppets, the generals made Washington believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers. In fact, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule but under two military dictators — one who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and the other who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.  

Without reform of the Pakistani army and ISI, there can be no end to transnational terrorism or even to genuine nation-building in Pakistan. How can Pakistan be a “normal” state if its army and intelligence remain outside civilian oversight and the decisive power remains with generals like Kayani and Pasha? Until the military's vice-like grip on power is broken and the ISI cut to size, Pakistan is likely to remain ground zero for the terrorist threat the world confronts. The only way Al Qaeda can reconstitute itself is if the Pakistani military succeeds in reinstalling a proxy regime in a post-2014 Afghanistan.