Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of a special operations element in Abbottabad, Pakistan does not end the threat of terrorism to the United States. Not by a long shot. But it is another major setback for al Qaeda, which was having a bad year to begin with.
Al Qaeda is vastly different than it was 10 years ago. Its core, led by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, has lost most of its potency after a decade largely in hiding. Bin Laden, a sort of chairman emeritus or king pin, was still at the movement’s center and a source of some financial backing, training and operational support.
Yes, he becomes a martyr, but because he died not on the battlefield but in hiding, it’s unclear how much his death will resonate beyond those already among the committed. Someone will obviously step into his shoes, perhaps Zawahri or American Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, but no one will command the world stage or inspire the movement the way bin Laden did.
Al Qaeda’s best work since 9/11 has been done by franchise operations in the Arabian Peninsula or the Maghreb, groups that carry the al Qaeda brand but operate with great independence. They are more of a regional threat than global, although there are Yemeni ties to the last three plots that focused on the United States, most notably the so-called Underwear bomber and the more recent attempt involving cargo planes.
The danger posed by Al-Awlaki and his circle in Yemen is not only undiminished by bin Laden’s death. They could easily attempt some kind of major operation in the near future in order to demonstrate that the torch has passed from the traditional core of al Qaeda to a new generation. In other words, while a clear win, it doesn’t mean the struggle is over.
By the same token, this is another indicator that, while the al Qaeda network is still dangerous, its popularity has probably peaked. What is truly remarkable about the ongoing transformation across the Middle East is the irrelevance of violent extremism among those protesting.
Al Qaeda has been a no-show.
What is truly remarkable about the ongoing transformation across the Middle East is the irrelevance of violent extremism among those protesting. Al Qaeda has been a no-show.
There are valid concerns about the unrest in Yemen and the split between the Saleh government and the opposition. But none of this appears to involve or benefit al Qaeda. The remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq continue to attack the Maliki government, but they do not have any evident strategic effect. Gaddafi has suggested that his fall would give rise to al Qaeda in Libya. While there is some evidence that at least one former detainee at Guantanamo is playing a role in the revolt, there is no credible evidence that al Qaeda’s narrow ideology is in any way driving the rebels.
There will be more terrorist attempts against the United States in future months and years. We should not be surprised when they occur, and most importantly we should not overreact if one is eventually successful. While our intelligence and defenses are better than they were 10 years ago, they are not impenetrable. Despite our best efforts, the odds suggest that terrorists will succeed every once in a while.
But for all bin Laden’s talk about reestablishing a Caliphate across the Muslim world, that vision, as fraudulent as it was, died with him, buried at sea.
Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley is the 2011-2012 Omar Bradley Chair for Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, and the Army War College. He served as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs and spokesman for the United States Department of State from May 2009 until March 2011.