updated 5/3/2011 10:18:17 AM ET 2011-05-03T14:18:17

For Americans, the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death evoked a range of powerful emotions, from elation and pride to reflection and fear. It also raised plenty of questions.

Was bin Laden's demise the end of something? Or was it just the beginning of something else? History may provide some clues.

From Israel to the Philippines, assassinations of powerful terrorist leaders have had immediate and clear psychological impacts for those on the other side, historians say. But in many cases, the death of an insurgency's leader falls far short of ending the insurgency altogether. In some cases, their deaths even strengthen the fight.

That's because terrorist groups like al-Qaeda tend to rally around some grand idea or principle rather than a cult of personality, said John McManus, a military historian at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. The only way to truly put down a movement like that is to wear it down and dismantle its organizational structure. Killing key individuals is only part of the solution.

"I can't think of one example off the top of my head of any magic bullets, where you take down one guy and that ends an insurgency," McManus said. "Usually, it's a much longer haul. They just lose steam over time. Recruiting and financing start to flitter away. 'Un-dramatic' is the key word."

"Regretfully, it's not a clean story," he added. "It's a gray area within a gray area. That's just how it works."

Perhaps the closest historical parallel to bin Laden was Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Philippines in a guerilla-style revolution against the United States around the turn of the 20th century, McManus said. Undercover American troops captured Aguinaldo in 1901, which was a major setback for the insurgency and proved to be a pivotal moment in the struggle. Nevertheless, the war continued for years.

Likewise, communism carried on after the deaths of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and Che Guevara in 1967. And even though Vietnamese communist leader Hô Chí Minh died of heart failure in 1969 -- right in the middle of the Vietnam War, combat persisted at the same pace.

Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PLO have all lost important leaders without ceding much momentum, McManus said. He added that it often takes some time for a group to reorganize after a significant loss. Rapid retaliation is not usually a hallmark reaction.

To be fair, some assassinations have severely and even permanently crippled rebel factions and terrorist groups.

The 1992 capture, trial and caged display of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán, for example, dealt a crushing blow to the Peruvian Maoist rebel group. In 1999, Turkey caught Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and his capture suppressed that terrorist movement for a decade. Hitler's death also marked the end of the Nazis, though Germany fell at the same time, making it more difficult to draw parallels between Hitler and bin Laden.

In order for a single leader's death to be able to pull down a whole group, the organization must depend on a hierarchical structure with a clear chain of command, said Douglas Woodwell, an expert in international conflict and terrorism at the University of Indianapolis. Both the Shining Path and the PKK fit that description, as did the al-Qaeda of the 1990s, when the death of bin Laden might have had a more powerful impact.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is a diffuse and franchised social movement, with separate local leaders in Iraq, northern Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Bin Laden may have been a charismatic and powerful symbol of radical Islamic beliefs, and his absence may set back recruiting efforts. But the group's ideology is unlikely to disappear just because their symbolic leader is gone.

As for what to expect next, history doesn't offer any answers. There has never been a group exactly like al-Qaeda. And there has never been a leader exactly like bin Laden.

"This is a really unique circumstance in American history," Woodwell said. "It's unparalleled in a lot of ways."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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