Osama bin Laden’s death, which weakens al-Qaeda by eliminating the leader who recruited members with grainy video messages, won’t end the terror threat as followers morph into smaller groups inspired by him.
“The world’s most wanted international terrorist is no more, but the death of bin Laden does not represent the demise of al-Qaeda affiliates and those inspired by al-Qaeda, who have and will continue to engage in terrorist attacks,” Ronald Noble, secretary general of Lyon, France-based Interpol said in an e-mailed statement.
The news announced to the world by Obama came about three days after a blast ripped through a restaurant in downtown Marrakech, Morocco, killing at least 17 people, underscoring how local terror leaders still have both the desire and capability to carry out attacks against the U.S. and other countries, said analysts and former counter-terrorism officials.
The centrally run al-Qaeda that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks no longer exists and has “transformed into a diffuse global network and philosophical movement composed of dispersed nodes with varying degrees of independence,” according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report in January.
Bin Laden’s death is “a big deal. It’s something we have sought” since the attacks, said former Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden in an interview. Still, “this is not a time to spike the ball and do one of those stupid dances in the end zone.”
That point was highlighted by Interpol, the international police organization, which told its member countries today “to be on full alert” for retaliation attacks as it warned that bin Laden’s death of doesn’t represent an end to terror threats.
U.S. officials say al Qaeda cells and associates operate in more than 70 countries, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service report.
“While a degraded corporate al-Qaeda may be welcome news to many, a trend has emerged over the past few years that some view as more difficult to detect, if not potentially more lethal,” according to the report.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in February the terrorist threat was the highest since Sept. 11 because of U.S. residents willing to carry out attacks with “little or no warning.”
Hayden and other counterterrorism specialists said that the U.S. should brace for retaliatory attacks from al-Qaeda and its allies after U.S. operatives killed bin Laden and other family members during a firefight in a city near of Islamabad.
“Osama bin Laden is a huge symbol and his killing at the hand of the main enemy, which is the United States, is something that will cause a feeling of a great defeat and a desire for revenge,” Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said in a telephone interview.
With bin Laden dead, U.S. counterterrorism officials will turn their attention to potential successors to bin Laden, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s No. 2 leader.
“It’s going to diminish their capacity and ability to keep the movement going,” said Thomas Fuentes, a former assistant FBI director who headed the international operations office before leaving the agency in 2008. “He has been the figurehead of the movement.”
Zawahiri lacks bin Laden’s broad support in al-Qaeda, they said. An Egyptian, Zawahiri may have problems unifying a group where there has been a split between the group’s Egyptian associates and other members, Hayden said.
Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been tied to several terrorist attacks, including a Nigerian suspected of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day, 2009, may also be a candidate.
That’s because he’s working with the most active branch of the group, Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, said Frank Cillufo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington
“Some of the other wannabees under him may inspire a few people here and there,” Fuentes said. “They’re not going to have the leadership, reputation and charisma that he has.”
Last month, a senior FBI official said the most serious terrorism threat to the U.S. comes from AQAP.
“While core AQ remains a serious threat, I believe the most serious threat to the homeland today emanates from members of AQAP,” said Mark Giuliano, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistant director for counterterrorism, in remarks on April 14 at Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Exploiting Social Media
Several key AQAP figures were born and educated in the U.S. and understand the country’s culture, vulnerabilities and security protocols, he said. The group exploits social media to share its knowledge with people of a similar mindset, he said
AQAP claimed credit for the December 2009 attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on its approach to Detroit and the October 2010 attempted bombings of air cargo flights headed for the U.S. from Yemen.
In addition to AQAP, other groups that pose a threat are Somalia-based al-Shabaab and Lashkar e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, the analysts said.
While dealing with a decentralized al-Qaeda, the U.S. will need to redouble its efforts to confront the radical Islamic philosophy that fuels al-Qaeda and like-minded groups, Cilluffo said.
“We also need to address ideology,” he said.
The spread of pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world this year provides a prime moment to highlight opposition to a group intent on imposing a theocracy, said Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs under President George W. Bush.
David H. Schanzer, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and director of the Triangle Center of Terrorism and Homeland Security, said that terrorist incidents in the U.S. have been declining in recent years, a reflection of al-Qaeda’s diminished capacity.
Even if al-Qaeda is weakened by its leader’s death, the group will attempt to show it’s still relevant, said Dan Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
One of bin Laden’s “successes was to create an organization that would outlive him,” he said.
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