D2: al Qaeda’s Relevance
By SCOTT SHANE and ROBERT F. WORTH
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda and the movement it has spawned are unlikely to be immediately handicapped by the killing of Osama bin Laden, who by most accounts has long been removed from managing terrorist operations and whose popularity with Muslims worldwide has plummeted in recent years.
But the death of the founder and spiritual leader of the global terrorist network, coming amid Arab pro-democracy uprisings that had already raised questions about Al Qaeda’s relevance, may further undercut the appeal of the violent extremism Bin Laden stood for.
“His killing is an amazing accomplishment, and it’s very important symbolically,” said Audrey Kurth Cronin, who studies terrorism at the National War College and wrote a book on how terrorist movements end. “But as far as Al Qaeda is concerned, Bin Laden’s practical importance is nothing like it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
A former jihadist who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Mohammad Omar Abdel Rahman, said the Qaeda founder had not really led the group for the last 10 years. “He was always a symbol,” said Mr. Abdel Rahman, 38, the eldest son of an Egyptian sheik imprisoned for his role in plotting to attack New York City landmarks. “But as a movement, he was unable to lead and manage as he was being pursued so closely.”
Of Bin Laden’s death, he said, “People will feel it in their heart, but as far as action goes, it will have no impact.”
It remained to be seen whether more operations against Al Qaeda would follow the assault on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan on Monday, or if the computer hard drives seized by the Navy Seal team that killed him could generate more leads on the whereabouts of Qaeda operatives still at large.
But as evidence of Bin Laden’s diminished status, when Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, gave a speech last week on Al Qaeda, his 4,000-word text did not so much as mention the terrorist leader.
If the impact of Bin Laden’s removal is limited, that is in part because of his success in creating a decentralized global movement in which loosely coordinated groups are often linked by little more than a shared ideology. Affiliates of the old core of Al Qaeda are based in Yemen, North Africa and Somalia and have taken on a far more prominent role in recent years in plotting violence, including attacks aimed at the United States and Europe.
Counterterrorism officials now are watching to see whether groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, consisting mostly of Saudis and Yemenis, are distracted by the power struggle at home or move to fill the media vacuum left by Bin Laden’s death. The American-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now hiding in Yemen, could take on greater prominence as a result of Bin Laden’s departure from the scene.
The coming days and weeks will be a tense time for counterterrorism officials, who will be on the lookout for new attacks designed by Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s deputy, and his other followers to demonstrate their continuing potency.
A classified document from the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center describes a reported Qaeda plan to detonate a nuclear weapon if and when Bin Laden were captured or killed. American officials believe the group has no such weapon, but they are concerned that news of Bin Laden’s death could be a pre-arranged signal for setting a plot in motion.
“The question is how quickly Zawahri and the remnants can try to prove their relevance with new operations,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “Their incentive is all the greater now.”
Their incentive is greater, too, because the group’s popularity has been dwindling. Even as the United States carried out its decade-long hunt for Bin Laden, his support among Muslims in many countries has tumbled, often after terrorists killed Muslim civilians. In Pakistan, for instance, a Pew Research survey shows that confidence in Bin Laden fell from 46 percent in 2003 to 18 percent last year. The drop in Jordan was from 56 percent in 2003 to 13 percent this year, and in Lebanon from 19 percent to 1 percent.
The turmoil among Bin Laden’s followers was evident in interviews and in Web postings.
“It is a sad moment and also a happy moment,” said Omar Bakri Muhammad, a radical religious leader who was exiled from Britain and spoke by telephone from Lebanon. “Sad because the ummah” — the global community of Muslims — “was in need of such a charismatic leader. Happy moment because he died as a martyr; he was not humiliated and fought until the last moment.”
Some militants expressed doubt about Bin Laden’s death, citing what they called doctored photographs of his corpse — evidently fakes — that shot around the Web on Monday. But most conceded that the news was true and tried to shift focus to the organization that he helped build.
Mr. Abdel Rahman, the son of the blind Egyptian sheik who is serving a life sentence in the United States, said Bin Laden’s courage and charisma would continue to inspire others.
“The United States killed him, but left everything there that he was fighting for,” he said. “Those who follow his ideology may feel more hatred for America now.”
Bin Laden’s sympathizers spoke out in Western countries too. Anjem Choudary, the leader of an extremist Islamic group in Britain, Muslims Against Crusades, said on Monday that he believes “that the passing away of the Sheik Osama bin Laden will signal a new phase — I believe that his followers have a point to prove now, and the intensity of the struggle will increase.”
In Afghanistan, a member of the Taliban’s ruling council, reached by phone, voiced skepticism about Bin Laden’s death, while insisting that it would not matter anyway. Like some other jihadists, he noted that Bin Laden’s death came in the midst of Arab uprisings that had already raised questions about the influence of Al Qaeda.
“At this moment, the mujahedeen are silent to see what the leadership will announce,” the council member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But after the time of silence there will be a time of payback.”
Reporting was contributed by Souad Mekhennet from Casablanca, Morocco; Mona el-Naggar, from Cairo; Eric Schmitt from Brussels; and Ravi Somaiya from London.