What Next for Al Qaeda?

The killing of Osama bin Laden by a U.S. special forces raid on his hideout in Pakistan is a devastating blow to al Qaeda. As any expert will tell you, one of bin Laden’s biggest successes is creating an organization that will survive him. Indeed, in the short-term sympathizers may conduct revenge attacks, while organization leaders may try to launch attacks to prove they remain in the fight. But that realization should not overshadow the happiness and excitement Americans should feel that bin Laden is dead.

Bin Laden, unusually for a terrorist leader, was a unifying figure. He tolerated dissent within his movement and urged different components of the jihadist movement to focus on the United States and other shared enemies rather than on internal divisions within the Muslim community. He did not always succeed, but he played an important role in helping a movement prone toward division avoid fracturing.

Bin Laden was also exceptionally charismatic. His modesty and personal bravery inspired many young Muslims to take up arms and follow him, often to the death. Potential successors – the most likely is Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy – may be dedicated revolutionaries and skilled tacticians, but they lack Bin Laden’s stature and charisma. Predicting how a new leader will behave is always involves guesswork, but Bin Laden’s shoes will be hard to fill. Recruitment and fundraising are likely to suffer as a result. 

Counterterrorism efforts must continue, and in the short-term perhaps even increase. The risk of revenge attacks should lead to a focus on bolstering defenses in the short-term. Even more important, aggressive strikes on al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and the global intelligence and policy campaign must continue. Al Qaeda may be on the run in the short-term, and the arrest or death of additional leaders, hindering their communications, and foiling their plots will make them even weaker.

Listen to Dan Byman’s interview on NPR’s Morning Edition »