Osama bin Laden’s death is a major but not fatal blow to Al Qaeda. The terror group has powerful allies in Pakistan, now its key target, and remains deadly. It has evolved enormously since 9/11, and its decentralized infrastructure makes it less vulnerable. But it is behind the power curve in the Arab world, which is changing faster than Al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s successors will need to adapt or risk becoming marginalized outside Pakistan and Yemen.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken an increasingly critical role. He, far more than his dead boss, has been Al Qaeda’s public face in recent years, speaking out more often and even writing a book last year on how to overthrow Pakistan—a country struggling against jihadism like no other, and, as the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power, a place that keeps the Obama national-security team up at night. Zawahiri was the target of the joint U.S.-Jordanian operation in December 2009 that ended when a Qaeda double agent blew up the CIA’s base camp in Afghanistan, killing more spies than in any disaster since Beirut in 1983.
But Zawahiri has looked out of the loop in the audio and video messages he has released this year. Both he and bin Laden were caught off guard by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions this winter and the wave of turmoil that has followed. These popular uprisings challenged their whole view that terror and jihad are the only way to free Islam of dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and of what they call “Crusader-Zionist oppression.” Whether Al Qaeda can adapt to the new Arab renaissance is an open question.
The New Mexico–born Anwar al-Awlaki, a Colorado State grad, seems best positioned to lead Al Qaeda’s response to the new Arab world order. His Yemeni cells have grown increasingly creative; witness the underwear bomber of Christmas 2009 and last fall’s parcel bombs targeting Chicago. Al-Awlaki’s English-language online magazine, Inspire, was the first Qaeda journal to laud the “tsunami” of change in Arabia and lay out a plan for the group to benefit from it. He will doubtless play a bigger ideological role going forward.