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CIAO Focus, May 2011: Al-Qaeda without Osama bin Laden

The CIA-orchestrated assault on the compound in Abbottabad that led to the death of Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly a foreign policy triumph for President Barack Obama, but it is less clear what this means for the future of Al-Qaeda.  In the last 10 years or so, the organization bin Laden founded has become less centralized and increasingly more of a franchise operation with like minded Jihadist groups around the world committing terrorist acts both in their home countries and abroad in the name of Al-Qaeda.
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Al-Qaeda moved most of its bases and training camps to Yemen and neighboring Pakistan, and its cells are now scattered globally from the Arab World to Europe and the Americas.  In spite of President Bush’s declaration of the war on terror, which included invading two different countries, Al-Qaeda attacks on western targets have actually increased rather than decreased since 9/11.  The group’s leadership has sworn to avenge bin Laden’s assassination currently putting many western governments on the alert against any potential blow back. 
This is not to say that killing Osama bin Laden will have no debilitating affect on Al-Qaeda.  Bin Laden was the organization’s spiritual leader (he handed operational control to his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after he went into hiding), but he was also the man who had alluded capture by the world’s most powerful nation for more than 10 years.  To many in the Muslim world who abhor the West he was an iconic figure and folk hero surrounded by a mythology of invincibility.  On May 2, 2011 that myth was punctured. Hence, the loss of bin Laden constitutes a serious psychological blow to his followers who looked to him for inspiration and guidance. 

At the same time it is worth mentioning the recent Arab uprisings that have all but marginalized militant Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda.   Statistics show that in the years following 9/11, Al-Qaeda has lost considerable popular support in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and also Iraq where the group’s brutality made it particularly unpopular.  The U.S. can continue to chip away at Al-Qaeda using drone strikes and by choking off its sources of funding, but the western countries should also throw their weight behind the pro democracy movements that have taken North Africa and the Middle East by storm.  For if the revolutions are seen as failing to deliver on their promises to provide a better life, Al-Qaeda will regain support to the detriment of all stakeholders, including Europe and the U.S. 

Robert Sedgwick
Editor, CIAO  


From the CIAO Database:

Success, Lethality, and Cell Structure Across the Dimensions of Al Qaeda

Combating Terrorism in Yemen Through the Committee for Religious Dialogue

Forgetting Osama bin Munqidh, Remembering Osama bin Laden: The Crusades in Modern Muslim Memory

Osama bin Laden is Dead

Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan

Al Qaeda's Religious Justification of Nuclear Terrorism

Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula


Outside Sources: *

Backgrounder: al-Qaeda (Council on Foreign Relations)

Al-Qaeda Facts & Figures (Al Jazeera)

Official Al-Qaeda Statement confirming the death of bin Laden

Bin Laden killed: In-depth coverage on the death of the al-Qaeda leader
(BBC News)

RAND Experts Use Decades of Terrorism Research to Assess Al Qaeda after bin Laden

Meet the Press at Brookings: After Bin Laden–What Next for al Qaeda and the Fight Against Terrorism? (video)

Middle East & Information Project

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.