Zawahiri, however, is considered a polarizing figure within the top circles of al-Qaeda and has long antagonized Islamic radicals from other factions. U.S. counterterrorism officials predicted he would have a much tougher time preserving unity within al-Qaeda and attracting new followers.
Among other potential leaders are charismatic figures who head al-Qaeda affiliates in places such as Yemen that are now regarded as even more dangerous than the one led by al-Qaeda’s central command. Over the past two years, the boldest attempted terrorist attacks have been carried out from Yemen, by a group whose leaders include the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi.
“Bin Laden leaves behind a number of groups that have been deeply influenced by him. He has built a movement that will outlast him,’’ said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
In certain parts of the Arab world, post-Sept. 11 enthusiasm for bin Laden and his ideologies has clearly subsided. The wave of populist uprising sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East unfolded without involvement by bin Laden and Al Qaeda; even Islamist movements are calling for democracy rather than the Islamic emirates that bin Laden had long sought in Arab world.
And even among the group’s supporters, the death of a charismatic leader such as bin Laden could make fundraising more difficult.
Nevertheless, bin Laden nurtured a constellation of al-Qaeda franchises stretching from Africa to the Middle East, and linked by ideology and allegiance to his core values and tactics. Such franchises, say terrorism experts, was part of a grand plan by bin Laden to enlarge al-Qaeda’s reach and leave a self-sustaining legacy.
Such affiliates received little, if any, financial and material support from al-Qaeda’s central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan — or any directives. They operated independently, conducting their own fundraising, recruitment and strategies. Often, bin Laden and his associates would step in to offer rhetorical and theological encouragement.
Yemen, in particular, is likely to become a prominent refuge and operational arena for al-Qaeda loyalists, possibly creating an even bigger challenge for the Obama administration, they said. The poor and unstable Middle Eastern nation is home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, which has tried to attack the United States twice since 2009.