How the Killing of Bin Laden Has Crippled al Qaeda

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

laden april30 p.jpg
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.

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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