Osama bin Laden’s death in an American raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan Sunday, nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the start of the war against terrorism, is undoubtedly a major symbolic victory. But it’s operational significance is somewhat unclear, analysts said Monday, given that al Qaeda had already been struggling to remain relevant both on the battlefield and in the ideological realm.
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American officials had boasted for years that, despite his success in eluding them, bin Laden had been cut off from the rest of the world and diminished as a military and spiritual leader. “Franchises” such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, apparently run by the charismatic American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, had taken on a greater role in executing terror plots against Western nations. And the so-called “Arab spring” roiling countries like Egypt, Yemen and Libya had further marginalized al Qaeda in the cultural and political spheres.
After U.S. intelligence officials suggested in March that there may have been “flickers” of al Qaeda among the rebel forces in Libya, for example, opposition leaders immediately issued a public statement condemning the terrorist organization and promising to adhere to secular, democratic principles. Aladdin Mgariaf, a Libyan expatriate who is close to the rebels and has been running aid convoys into Benghazi and other eastern cities, said of the opposition fighters, “They’re not in any way fanatical or related to any Islamic parties or anything.”
In the 10 years since he masterminded the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times, bin Laden has largely faded into the background, issuing ill-timed and sometimes incoherent political messages that had begun to lose their emotional salience for young Arab activists coming of age in a more interconnected world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the disillusioned Tunisian street vendor who touched off the first protests by self-immolating last year, was only 16, for instance, when planes slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, making bin Laden a hero among Arabs suspicious of the West.
“Bin Laden is seen as the figurehead of international jihadism, but the core al Qaeda group has become increasingly irrelevant in recent years,” said Scott Stewart, an analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor who led the State Department’s investigation into the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. “They have taken a back seat on the physical battlefield to groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and have also become increasingly marginalized on the ideological battlefield as well.”
Stewart said bin Laden’s death was simply “a continuation in a long slide for” al Qaeda, which has grown diffuse and decentralized, and has seen its capacity to launch attacks directly against Western targets, or even inspire attacks by far-flung terrorist agents, diminish. Even reprisals for bin Laden’s death, he said, would likely come from independent actors rather than al Qaeda’s central command. “In my opinion, any additional threat will come from the grassroots,” Stewart said. “If al Qaeda had the ability to strike in the U.S. they would have exercised it long ago.”
Of course, bin Laden’s death is important not only as a symbolic victory but as a deterrent; killing him removes the jihadist movement’s spiritual figurehead and shows aspiring militants that there are consequences for plotting against the United States. “It was important for this to have happened,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department adviser and policy coordinator for Afghanistan, said Monday. “It may even have something of a positive demonstrative effect in the sense that some existing terrorists may reconsider their line of work, or it may discourage some would-be terrorists from choosing this as a line of work.”
Haass cautioned, though, that as bin Laden and his terrorist network have slid further into irrelevance, others have sought to fill the void. Spiritual leaders such as al-Awlawki remain capable of inspiring attacks against the U.S., and homegrown terrorists inspired by his radical brand of Islam remain determined to see those plots through. They may be helped, Haass added, by the legacy and resources bin Laden left behind.
“Bin Laden in some ways was almost like a venture capitalist, spreading money around. And the fact now that he’s gone doesn’t change the reality that there’s all sorts of successors within al Qaeda, and there’s all sorts of other groups in addition to al Qaeda,” Haass said. “There’s no decapitation, if you will, of the terrorist threat.”