Osama bin Laden’s death is a blow for al Qaeda. The terrorist mastermind was a charismatic leader who slowly and steadily built a professional terrorist organization that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and thousands more Muslims in the Middle East. Al Qaeda will outlive him, of course, but how dangerous will the terrorist group be now that its leader is dead?
The al Qaeda core, the relatively small number of skilled and dedicated fighters who swore loyalty to Bin Laden, remains alive and active, but it has been hit hard in recent years. Bin Laden’s death is the most significant blow it has suffered, but in the last two years, near-constant drone strikes have hammered at the organization in Pakistan, taking out many important lieutenants at a pace that made them difficult to replace with experienced and skilled leaders. Even more important, to avoid losing still more people, the organization had to cut communications, increase counterintelligence, avoid large gatherings, and otherwise become less effective.
Bin Laden’s death will not immobilize the core. Indeed, it may seek to launch any off-the-shelf or in-process attacks as soon as possible to prove its relevance. However, this is an organization built along personal lines, with a new leader needing to win the loyalty and support of his followers. With Bin Laden’s death, his successor—most likely his No. 2, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri—will need to consolidate his power. This is hard to do when he is on the run and cannot communicate freely.
The bigger danger comes from al Qaeda affiliates, such as the Yemen-based al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula or al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. These organizations are linked to the al Qaeda core, at times sharing personnel and resources and working toward a common goal. However, they also have a structure and identity independent of al Qaeda.
With Bin Laden’s death, these affiliates retain their operational capacity. They will continue to try to undermine U.S. allies and some, such as AQAP, will attempt to strike U.S. targets beyond the region in which they operate. Bin Laden worked hard to try to knit these disparate organizations together. His success has made them all far more lethal, but keeping the ties strong depended heavily on Bin Laden’s charisma and his access to funds. Zawahiri is less charismatic than Bin Laden. Perhaps more important, he and other potential new leaders may not have the fund-raising powers that Bin Laden’s star power gave him (particularly in his native Saudi Arabia). Leaders like AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki, who reportedly masterminded the recent attempts to bomb U.S. cargo planes and the “underwear bombing” that almost destroyed a passenger airplane heading to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, may use Bin Laden’s death to further increase their own stature and leadership role in the global organization. Such leaders will seek to draw new recruits and funding to their cause instead of to the al-Qaida core.
One of the biggest question marks for al Qaeda involves potential supporters around the world who are not formally part of the organization but are inspired by al Qaeda’s message. Al Qaeda has helped radicalize these individuals, often sending them to Pakistan to train or to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight. In these theaters, idealistic young Muslims became further indoctrinated with al Qaeda’s anti-U.S. agenda, with many going from insurgent fighters to international terrorists in the process.
This recruiting and proselytizing network remains strong, but it will suffer without Bin Laden’s star power. Bin Laden is a household name: the millionaire who gave up everything to fight the enemies of Islam. Even many Muslims who deplore his killing of civilians (particularly Muslim women and children) admire him for standing up to the United States. Zawahiri, too, is well-known, but he is a far more problematic figure for many Muslims, including those in the radical community. Historically he has been more of a divider than a unifier, excoriating groups like the Muslim Brotherhood for straying from the true path, and picking fights with other jihadist groups over narrow doctrinal and organizational issues. During the early 1980s in Egypt, according to some reports, he betrayed his comrades after being tortured in Hosni Mubarak’s dungeons—understandable, perhaps, but hardly an asset in radical circles.
The last front is Muslim public opinion. Gaining support in the Muslim world is vital for gathering intelligence on al Qaeda and for convincing governments to work closely with the United States. U.S. support for democratic change in countries like Egypt was one useful step here, but so, too, was killing Osama Bin Laden. The terrorist’s survival was a daily victory for al Qaeda, showing that the United States—despite having the world’s largest defense budget and biggest economy—could not catch one man who enjoyed divine protection in the eyes of his supporters. The daring U.S. raid that killed him makes Washington look strong. Young Muslims in the Arab world now have a model for peaceful change before them and, at the same time, the allure of al Qaeda is diminished.
This mix of threats from the al Qaeda core, affiliates, and sympathizers still poses a danger to the United States and its allies. But Bin Laden’s death offers hope that the danger from all three will diminish over time. Keeping the pressure on al Qaeda is vital to ensure that the organization becomes weaker still.