The first question that many in the West will have asked on hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing is: does this make us any safer? The cautious reply of security experts is that in the short term the danger of terrorist attacks may go up as al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups look for ways to avenge the death of their symbolic leader, but that in the long-term Mr bin Laden’s demise may erode the al-Qaeda brand and thus its ability to influence the global jihadist movement. Even that may be too optimistic. Osama bin Laden dead is a great deal better than Osama bin Laden alive, but the truth is that his death may mean rather more to his enemies than to his followers.
Perhaps if the opportunity to capture or kill Mr bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains back in November 2001 had not been spurned, the blow to al-Qaeda would have been substantial. But over the best part of a decade, the terrorist organisation has had more than enough time to adapt to life without Mr bin Laden as much more than its titular head. The fact that the compound where Mr bin Laden had been hiding since 2005 appeared to have no internet access tells its own story of his diminished operational significance. Apart from the occasional rambling video recording smuggled to Al Jazeera, Mr bin Laden’s main value to al-Qaeda was his ability to inspire and unify as the network evolved into a classic franchise operation, albeit one based on quasi-tribal forms of allegiance.
In the past ten years, even as “core al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan has been ground down by special forces and drone attacks to no more than a couple of hundred active members, its network has spread, new operational leaders have been recruited and trained, resilient cells formed and new bases established. Core al-Qaeda has learned how to work with local and nationalist jihadist groups, helping to amplify and re-orient their violence, sometimes encouraging and presiding over collaboration between groups. Regardless of Mr bin Laden’s fate, the Taliban will continue the fight in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while franchise outfits in Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular, or AQAP), North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM) and affiliates, such as al Shabab in Somalia, will carry on much as before. For now, both al Shabab and AQIM are mainly regional players, although Westerners are sometimes targets as was the case in the bomb attack on a tourist café in Marrakesh last week. However, Western security sources see AQAP as a major and growing threat both to “far” and “near” enemies.
AQAP, under the leadership of Nasser al Wahayshi, a former personal aide of Mr bin Laden’s, and Anwar al Awlaki, an American-Yemeni cleric, has been the instigator of several recent terror plots aimed at America, from the Fort Hood shootings to the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” and the highly-sophisticated attempt last October to blow up two Chicago-bound cargo planes with bombs concealed in printer cartridges. With Mr bin Laden dead and its bases in south and east Yemen able to provide better protection from attack than core al-Qaeda’s North Waziristan heartland, AQAP has the potential to increase its influence over the whole organisation. To do so, however, it may need to carry out a successful spectacular to confirm its capabilities, which is easier said than done.
Such spectaculars can also take years to plan. In the meantime, al-Qaeda’s response to Mr bin Laden’s death is most likely to be in the form of activating sleepers to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in the West and more mayhem in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In other words, business as usual, only perhaps a bit more so in the weeks and months ahead. After a decade of relentless military and financial attrition, al-Qaeda may not be what it was, but it has evolved into something no less dangerous. Like a smart chief executive, Mr bin Laden’s greatest achievement is to have built something that no longer needed him.