Quick Take: What’s Next for Al-Qaida?

BY Larisa Epatko  May 5, 2011 at 4:10 PM EDT


Television image of al-Qaida leaders Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden and Suleiman Abu Ghaith in 2002. (AFP/Getty Images)

The death of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden immediately raised questions about whether the terrorist network would suffer without its recognizable leader. And what about this year’s revolutions in the Arab world, which have shown those seeking change a different avenue than violence?

Confidence in bin Laden among Muslims already was eroding before his death, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The latest survey, conducted in March and April, showed support for the al-Qaida leader dropping between 12 percent and 43 percent in some countries from more positive sentiments in 2003.

So in light of recent developments, we asked several regional and terrorism specialists one question: What’s next for al-Qaida after bin Laden’s death? Here’s what they said:

Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a professor in the School of Foreign Service:

“Demonstrating its continued relevance despite the death of its founder, leader and preeminent voice. Bin Laden himself in an interview in 1998 said he welcomed his death because it provided an opportunity for martyrdom and the hope that his death would produce thousands of more Osamas. Well, even up until six months ago, al-Qaida and bin Laden in death might have been accorded the coverage and bandwidth that might have given him at least some prospect of that hope’s realization. I would say now al-Qaida and bin Laden are no longer the big story of the Muslim world, the Arab Spring is, and events in Egypt, Libya, Syria, or any other country continually threaten to knock al-Qaida and bin Laden off the front pages or the airwaves or the Internet. So that’s their biggest challenge — it is much harder now than it’s ever been.”

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Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst at the Center for Muslim Studies:

“It is difficult to determine who or what comes next for al-Qaida post bin Laden. What is more certain is that Muslims around the world already live a post-al-Qaida narrative. For the past nine years, most Muslims have rejected 9/11 on moral grounds. Today, the people of Egypt and Tunis accomplished in weeks what all of al-Qaida’s bombs failed to do in decades. These peaceful transformations dealt a final blow to the group’s argument for violence.”

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Thomas Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo and a fellow at New York University:

“In the short term, Ayman al-Zawahri, formerly No. 2, is going to take over. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There might be more debate or friction within the organization in Pakistan because Zawahri is a controversial figure and because below him it’s not clear who’s next in succession, so there might be power struggles to get the No. 2 position. Al-Qaida central in Pakistan is going to experience turmoil and probably be further weakened.

“For the bigger picture, some of the other regional affiliates will increase in importance, particularly al-Qaida in Yemen — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So we can expect AQAP to take a more prominent role than it has so far, because of al-Qaida central’s decline and due to the unrest in Yemen.

“But in the long run, all of the various al-Qaida affiliates will suffer. They will experience more problems and a decline because bin Laden’s death and the revolutions in the region undermine recruitment. People will be less interested in joining al-Qaida. That has implications for its survival.

“The Arab Spring was already posing a public relations challenge for al-Qaida, and now they’re losing their leader in this key moment when they have to figure out which strategic direction to go — how to handle the Arab Spring. So the loss of the leader really confounds the confusion and probably the friction and infighting that we will see.”

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Farhana Qazi, a private consultant on Afghanistan and Pakistan and a former counterterrorism analyst for the U.S. government:

“We’ve already seen, immediately after his death, a number of jihadi online forums issue threats about some sort of grand attack, some sensational terrorist attack that’s going to startle the world. But quite frankly, the organization has been weakened for years prior to bin Laden’s capture. So I think you’re just going to see the status quo. The status quo is that Pakistan has been under attack by these terrorist organizations for years. And if you look at today, yesterday, this week, last week, you still see continued operations in the tribal agencies of Pakistan. Even outside the tribal agencies, you’ve see attacks within the cities. You saw over the weekend, along with bin Laden’s death, the capture of the 12-year-old suicide bomber. So I think you’re going to see the same old terrorist rhetoric. I don’t really think anything has changed significantly.”

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Ed Husain, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations specializing in political Islam:

“In terms of imagery, symbolism and philosophy, al-Qaida is strengthened because it now has not just an ordinary martyr, but a Saudi martyr of the type that al-Qaida seeks — someone who has given up a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia, someone who’s gone and fought, someone who rejects mainstream Muslim scholarship, someone who calls for the hatred of non-Muslims. All of that is strengthened.

“Operationally, al-Qaida central has been weak for the last 10 years and it will continue to remain weak. In the short term, there are many indications of blowback or revenge attacks. So al-Qaida central remains weak.

“But I think al-Qaida’s offshoots globally — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (in Algeria), and al-Qaida cells in Europe — those in the long term become strengthened. And therefore, the possibility of self-radicalization on the web or by exposure to bin Laden’s life and heroic and martyr status that he now has will help instigate further terrorism be it here in American/European main lands, or Muslim-majority countries, or more worryingly as a result of the Arab Spring, creating a greater opening for jihadists to take up arms in that part of the world.”

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Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” and a senior adviser to U.S. government agencies on al-Qaida:

“I think that answer has to be rooted in the fact that bin Laden played two roles in al-Qaida: he was the CEO of the al-Qaida organization and he was the ultimate rhetorical authority for the global al-Qaida movement. And I don’t think anyone can replace him in that dual-hatted nature. So this is why we’re seeing discussions all over the board on who’s going to replace him — everyone from Ayman al-Zawahri to Anwar al-Awlaki to Abu Yahya al-Libi. These people are totally different than each other and they serve totally different roles. So I think what we’re going to see is the functions that bin Laden served for al-Qaida being taken over by multiple people in different ways.

“On the organizational side, Zawahri is the natural successor. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. But where things get interesting is on the rhetorical side. Who is the ultimate authority, not just for a few hundred fighters within al-Qaida, but the global al-Qaida movement? Everything from the regional franchises to the guy living alone in his basement logging onto al-Qaida websites at night. Who is their go-to guy, and I don’t think it’s Zawahri. And I think that’s where we’re going to see a lot of competition among al-Qaida senior talking heads for the de facto role as the ultimate arbiter and authority.”

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Marc Sageman, special adviser to the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence:

“It’s going to further degrade al-Qaida central. Ayman al-Zawahri is very divisive and polarizing, and I suspect many in al-Qaida will refuse to follow his lead. This is kind of the bin Laden story. This was very much a rich man who sacrificed everything for the jihad, and it had some sort of romantic appeal for a lot of young wannabes. And I see the end of that story diminish the influx of new wannabes who may want to join that movement. So in a sense, the global neo-jihadi terrorism will slowly fade away and degrade more to a type of leaderless jihad.

“This is kind of the beginning of the end of al-Qaida. There are still a few people out there, but not very many. Other organizations will try to step up to become the foremost global neo-jihadi terrorist organization. But I think over time they will concentrate more and more on local issues, such as Yemen and Pakistan, and less on the West. The guy who was really focusing people on the West was bin Laden himself.”

Resources: Full coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death and a timeline of Arab world uprisings

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