The death of Osama bin Laden robs Al Qaeda 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 say bin Laden has 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 say, it will not end the threat from an increasingly potent and self-reliant string of regional Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Yemen or from a self-radicalized vanguard here at home.
"Clearly, this doesn't end the threat from Al Qaeda and its affiliates," says Juan Zarate, a top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. "But it deprives Al Qaeda of its core leader and the ideological cohesion that bin Laden maintains."
Obama administration officials say 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 President Obama took office.
Administration officials predict 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 Qaeda leaders' efforts to obtain nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and to use them against the United States, will weaken.
"Bin Laden was Al Qaeda'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," says a senior administration official.
However, in recent years, bin Laden has been heard from only rarely, in often-scratchy audio recordings.
The official says 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, according to the official.
Indeed, the Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda's main base of operations in Pakistan has come under withering attack from the Central Intelligence Agency's armed drones.
Meanwhile, regional terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have blossomed in North Africa, Iraq, East Africa, and Yemen. All have been personally blessed by bin Laden, but each group has developed its own strategy, fund-raising, and recruiting methods.
That was bin Laden's vision from the start. Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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—the so-called underwear bomber who was arrested when the plane landed in Detroit. Last October, authorities thwarted a plot by the Yemen group to blow up Chicago-bound cargo planes using printer cartridges packed with explosives.
Terrorist training camps set up by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the largely ungoverned wilds of Pakistan's tribal border areas are likely to continue to turn out dozens of militants trained in explosives and automatic weapons, just like the young Moroccan man arrested last week in Germany and accused of plotting to attack the transportation system of a major German city.
But Al Qaeda faces the challenge of trying to remain relevant amid the fervor that has been unleashed in the democratic protests in the Middle East and North Africa. The demonstrators have largely ignored Al Qaeda's call to use violence to overthrow dictators and despots.
"Al Qaeda has been struggling on the sidelines of the Arab revolution, its popularity in Arab and Muslim countries has been declining, and there are internal divisions about the direction of the movement," says Zarate, the former counterterrorism official.
A senior Obama administration official echoed that sentiment, putting it this way: "Although Al Qaeda may not fragment immediately, the loss of Bin Laden puts the group on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse."
But at the same time, he and other American officials warn of a possible series of attacks against the United States and Americans abroad to prove that the movement still poses a deadly threat.
"Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers may try to respond violently to avenge bin Laden's death," the official says, "and other terrorist leaders may try to accelerate their efforts to strike the United States."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, May 9, 2011)