By Riad Kahwaji and Dr. Theodore Karasik
The announcement of the death of Al-Qaeda spiritual leader Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011 by U.S. Special Operations forces is a major moral victory for the United States and her allies fighting against terrorism. A momentary expression of relief is reasonable and a chapter closed. However a new chapter is opening that raises many questions about the near future in terms of al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and the impact on the Middle East and the Gulf States in particular.
Al-Qaeda’s decentralized organization emerged in the mid-2000s with the emergence of three main franchise operations: al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq). These groups operate on their own with what appears to be very little guidance from Bin Laden or his close associates in Pakistan (known as al-Qaeda Central). The strategy featured a “transference policy” where the franchises developed unique ways to target Western assets through innovative ways by looking for key legal and security loopholes (the 2011 cargo explosives episode comes to mind). The decentralization was also a boost to recruitment efforts for local affiliates who were able to bring in volunteers that fell outside of Western counterterrorism operations.
Significantly there is the question of the role Bin Laden played recently in al-Qaeda management from Al-Qaeda Central. Some argued that the al-Qaeda leader was under so much pressure from foreign intelligence services who were hunting for him that Bin Laden was unable to communicate and was hiding “in a cave.” Others asserted that Bin Laden still delivered messages to his operators not only in Pakistan but also to al-Qaeda franchises when necessary regarding finances, operations, and recruitment. The fact that Bin Laden was killed along with two couriers testifies to his means of communications.
Who are the possible successors in the wake of Bin Laden’s death? First and foremost is Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian confidant of the now deceased al-Qaeda leader. While Bin Laden was a charismatic leader providing ideological justification for al-Qaeda’s program, Zawahiri is a strategist and organizer. In the 2001 booklet, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” Zawahiri developed a long-term strategy for the violent Salafist jihadi movement — to inflict “as many casualties as possible” on the Americans, while trying to establish control in “a nation” as a base “to launch the battle to restore the holy caliphate” of Islamic rule across the Muslim world.
More telling, however, is that perhaps al-Qaeda may turn to someone unknown in order to safeguard the organization from their leadership from being decapitated. Omar bin Laden, Osama’s son, commented that the next generation is more vicious and seeks more violence to achieve their goals. Who these individuals are remains to be seen and may possibly be an individual that is more mysterious than public. Or, al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula may take the helm of the organization because they have leadership, ideology, training, and media capabilities. Anwar al-Awlaki is the key al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula leader who can fill Osama Bin Laden’s position as a spiritual leader and a driving force to organize, train, and recruit new violent jihadis and take up where Bin Laden left off. Al-Awlaki is one of the few al-Qaeda leaders who possess Bin Laden’s ability to unite individuals in violent jihad through his dynamic charisma and his ability to speak. Al-Awlaki is also a driver to building a powerful support base among Yemeni tribes, even marrying into local tribes, which complicates the situation in today’s Yemen under revolt. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the leader of AQIM is also a possible leader. Besides attacks on Algerian targets and spreading chaos across North Africa chiefly in Mauritania and running smuggling operations throughout Western Africa, AQIM issued a statement on February 24, 2011 calling all Muslims to support the revolt against Gaddafi in order to install an Islamic regime thereby echoing Zawahiri.
The regional implications of Bin Laden’s death are multifold. First and foremost is that the group will launch attacks on American and or Western interests in the Middle East. It is rumored that al-Qaeda had in place plans to launch retribution operations in the event of Bin Laden’s demise; ever since Tora Bora. Now that this fact is a reality, those plans may be dusted off and implemented. And they can take a number of forms; from a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) to a Mumbai style attack. There are other variants including attacks on American businesses or tourists. Violent Jihadist chat rooms are today alive with the threat of vengeance for Bin Laden’s death and the possibility of lone-wolf operations cannot be ruled out. These threats are not only present in the Middle East but also on the Arabian Peninsula.
A second implication to watch out for is the impact on the so-called Arab Spring – which refers to a series of public revolts across the Arab world. While al-Qaeda’s narrative has been sidelined most of the year, there are comments by al-Qaeda leaders regarding the revolts particularly in Egypt and Libya. In April 2011, al-Zawahiri celebrated the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Al-Zawahiri called upon Muslims to fight both “the mercenaries of Qaddafi and the rest of NATO” should NATO intervene in Libya. If al-Qaeda tries to slip into and manipulate the revolt this could have dramatic consequences within and surrounding key countries in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Particularly worrying is how Yemeni President Saleh will react. Saleh will likely use Bin Laden’s death as an excuse to stay in power longer because he will likely argue that he needs to remain in charge to help squash any attempts by al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula from gaining more ground and expanding operations.
The main lessons learned from the events of May 2, 2011:
- Al-Qaeda leaders are very elusive and could be living in safe areas hundreds of miles from the warfront, as was with the case of Bin Laden who was killed in a recently-built compound just 50 kilometers from the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
- Nothing is as effective as intelligence-style operations in the war on terrorism. Keeping just very few people aware of the operation was a key for its success. As the newly appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General David Patraeus, the war on terrorism will be fought by intelligence officers.
- The Pakistanis had an important role to play diplomatically and in intelligence-sharing. Despite the Pakistani denial of knowledge about the operation, it would be hard to believe that in a very militarized country like Pakistan which is always on alert for possible military threats from India, its radars failed to see the U.S. helicopters flying in and out of the country ferrying the commandos to a compound 50 kilometers away from the capital. It could be that only a limited number of well-trusted Pakistani officials were aware of this operation in order to ensure the safe-passage of the U.S. commandos unit in and out of the country.
- Killing Bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan proved the level of cooperation Al-Qaeda and Taliban have with elements of the Pakistani security and intelligence agencies. This will place Pakistani military and security forces under further international pressure to do more in combating terrorism.
- The war on terror is open-ended and without limits on place and time. It took ten years to get Bin Laden and would likely take more than that to get his colleagues in terror.
It will not be long before the world realizes that Al-Qaeda terror did not end with the death of Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is now a decentralized organization united by a radical ideology. Hence this movement will die when no more people support or uphold this ideology. Maybe the Arab Spring, which is helping Arab citizens regain their long-lost dignity – with the collapse of dictatorships and rise of free and democratic governments – will help eradicate Al-Qaeda’s radical ideology that used to find sympathy and support within oppressed societies. If so, the death of Bin Laden combined with the successful transition of the Arab Spring might be the beginning of the end for Al-Qaeda. But for now, the war on terror is still on and it could be some time before it is over.
Mr. Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA, and Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director R&D, INEGMA