How the Killing of Bin Laden Has Crippled al Qaeda

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The raid in Pakistan was the beginning of a larger campaign against other leaders in the group.

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Osama Bin Laden in a previously unreleased video still. Reuters

After hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden, U.S. commandos still had to deal with the essential duality of the man. For 20 precious minutes Navy SEAL Team Six scoured bin Laden's compound in Pakistan's military garrison city of Abbottabad, collecting what has been described as a library's worth of intelligence on the inner workings of al-Qaida. That effort recognized bin Laden the arch-terrorist, who built the organization into a globe-spanning conglomerate with far-flung franchises and affiliates. Later they buried him at sea to ensure his final resting place did not become a point of pilgrimage for true believers--a nod to bin Laden the symbolic leader of a revolutionary movement.

One year later, it's increasingly clear that killing bin Laden the arch-terrorist dealt a major blow to the core al-Qaida group he helped found. Though discredited among many mainstream Muslims and refuted by Arab Spring democracy movements, bin Laden's revolutionary ideology of a nihilistic war between Islam and the West unfortunately lives on.

"Precisely because he had such symbolic status in the eyes of his followers, it was important that bin Laden was brought to justice," said Paul Pillar, a counterterrorism expert and the CIA's former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. "Though opinion polls show that many Muslims had become repulsed by al-Qaida's willingness to shed Muslim blood, bin Laden's role as visionary and ideological lodestar for some Islamic extremists survives him. Ideas don't die."

In terms of further degrading the "core" al-Qaida group that was behind the 9/11 terror attacks, whose remnants are mostly hiding inside Pakistan, there's little doubt that the Abbottabad raid landed a potentially crippling blow. Given the treasure trove of intelligence gathered during the operation, it is probably no coincidence that the raid was followed by a series of successful strikes against senior bin Laden lieutenants.

In fact, in roughly the last year U.S. intelligence officials claim to have killed half of al-Qaida's top 20 leaders in raids and attacks by armed drones, including Ilyas Kashmiri, considered one of al-Qaida's most dangerous operational commanders and strategists, killed last June in Pakistan; Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaida's titular No. 2 and top operational planner, killed last August in Pakistan; and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and a Jihadist propagandist that many counterterrorism experts considered nearly as dangerous as bin Laden himself, killed by drone strike in Yemen last September. 

The last, at-large al-Qaida leader remaining from the time of the 9/11 attacks is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former deputy who took the reins of al-Qaida six weeks after bin Laden's death. Considered the "operational brains" behind the organization and its chief ideologue, Zawahiri has attempted to rebuild al-Qaida's core and reconstitute links to its global franchises, with uncertain results. By most accounts the taciturn Zawahiri lacks bin Laden's personal appeal and charisma in uniting disparate extremist groups and rallying new recruits to al-Qaida's banner, but he remains a dangerous terrorist tactician.

"There is no question a year after bin Laden's death that the al-Qaida core has been devastated by his loss, because he had achieved mythic status as the Robin Hood of international terrorism who the sheriff couldn't catch, and at the time of his death he was still the boss who ran the organization and kept its archives," said Bruce Reidel, a former career CIA analyst and author of The Search for al-Qaida: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future, speaking recently at the Brookings Institution. "Now that myth has been destroyed and bin Laden has been brought to justice. While Zawahiri cannot fill bin Laden's larger-than-life shoes, however, I would warn against underestimating him. He's an experienced terrorist who has been involved in a lot of successful plots over many years."

What worries Reidel even more than a still dangerous but weakening al-Qaida, however, is the fact that a "syndicate" of like-minded extremist groups advocating global Jihad have sprung up around it in Pakistan. The challenge comes at a time when U.S.-Pakistani relations are at a modern nadir largely as a result of the Abbottabad raid and Obama's decision not to inform the Pakistanis of the operation in advance.  

Other counterterrorism experts have noted a similar phenomenon. Even as al-Qaida withers under relentless assault, resilient new branches of Islamic extremism continue to sprout in places where the soil is made fertile by conflict, sectarian strife, or weak government, from Yemen, Syria, Nigeria and Somalia, to Indonesia, the Philippines, and especially Pakistan. While most of those groups focus primarily on local targets of opportunity, if they are successful it may only be a matter of time until they heed bin Laden's call to look toward the "far enemy" in the West.

Philip Mudd has served as a top counterterrorism expert at the CIA and FBI. "In the context of a lot of other strikes targeting top al-Qaida leadership, bin Laden's death may have been the blow that started the foundation of that organization really crumbling," he said in an interview. "But we came to this fight late, after al-Qaida had enjoyed sanctuary for nearly a decade. Bin Laden had a lot of time to spread his revolutionary ideology. Now that he's gone, we're finding that the movement he inspired will take longer to eradicate."

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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