The death of Osama bin Laden robs al-Qaida of its founder and spiritual leader at a time when the terrorist organization is struggling to show its relevance to the democratic protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.
Experts said bin Laden had been a largely symbolic figure in recent years who had little if any direct role in spreading terrorism worldwide. While his death is significant, these officials said, it will not end the threat from an increasingly potent and self-reliant string of regional al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and Yemen or from a self-radicalized vanguard here at home.
“Clearly, this doesn’t end the threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates,” said Juan Zarate, a top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. “But it deprives al-Qaida of its core leader and the ideological cohesion that bin Laden maintains.”
Obama administration officials said that despite bin Laden’s waning influence over day-to-day operations in recent years, his capture or killing was a priority of intelligence, military and counterterrorism officials from the moment that Barack Obama took office.
Administration officials predicted that without bin Laden’s spiritual guidance – and his almost mystical ability to inspire followers by standing up to and evading American and allied efforts to hunt him down – al-Qaida leaders’ efforts to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and to use them against the United States, will weaken.
“Bin Laden was al-Qaida’s only commander in its 22-year history and was largely responsible for the organization’s mystique, its attraction among violent jihadists and its focus on America as a terrorist target,” a senior administration official told reporters early Monday.
The official predicted that bin Laden’s longtime Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, “is far less charismatic and not as well respected within the organization.” He will likely have difficulty maintaining the loyalty of bin Laden’s followers, who are largely Arabs from the Persian Gulf and who are pivotal in supplying the organization with fighters, money and ideological support, the official said.
Indeed, the al-Qaida of today is a much different organization than the one bin Laden presided over on Sept. 11, 2001. It is much less hierarchical and more diffuse. And al-Qaida’s main headquarters in Pakistan has come under withering attack from the Central Intelligence Agency’s armed drones.
Meantime, regional affiliates have blossomed in North Africa, Iraq, East Africa and Yemen. All have been personally blessed by bin Laden, but each has developed its own strategy, fundraising and recruiting methods.
That was bin Laden’s vision from the start. Al-Qaida means “the base” in Arabic. His plan was to spin off terrorist subsidiaries that could request ideological guidance or material support from time to time, but were meant to be largely self-sustaining soon after they were launched.
Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently described the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen as posing the most immediate threat to the United States. It trained and deployed a young Nigerian man who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet on Dec. 25, 2009. Last October, authorities thwarted a plot by the Yemen group to blow up Chicago-bound cargo planes using printer cartridges that were packed with explosives. Agencies