In recent months, the nation’s top intelligence officials have testified that al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen probably poses the most immediate threat to U.S. interests, and has been tied to a series of near-miss attacks, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009.
One of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot is known, is an American-born cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who might stake claim to at least part of bin Laden’s mantle as a charismatic figure committed to attacks against the United States and the West.
Al-Qaeda has established ties to militant movements in other countries, such as Somalia. And even in Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed, the terrorist group functions in some ways as a force multiplier for other militant organizations, including the Afghanistan Taliban — lending expertise and inspiration to groups increasingly capable of wreaking devastation on their own.
President Obama acknowledged in his late-night speech Sunday that bin Laden’s death did not mark the end of the al-Qaeda threat. “There is no doubt al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us,” Obama said. “We must, and we will remain, vigilant at home and abroad.”
Counterterrorism officials and experts described bin Laden’s death as a devastating blow to the terrorist network he helped found and build. For nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden loomed as a symbol to emerging Islamist extremists, a man who had bloodied the most powerful nation in the world and seemed until Sunday as if he might elude that country’s desperate grasp.
But experts also said that bin Laden in recent years had served much more as a symbol than as an operational figure, and that the implications of his death for al-Qaeda are not entirely clear.
“Decapitating the movement will not undermine it; the al-Qaeda affiliates and the singletons will still pose threats,” said John McLaughlin, a CIA veteran who served as interim director of the agency. “But much of the inspirational power of the al-Qaeda center will diminish.”
Another retired CIA veteran, Paul Pillar, who served as the agency’s national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2004, said al-Qaeda has been widely decentralized, spreading to Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other organizations, and that bin Laden’s death would have little impact on the planning of attacks.
“In terms of operational control and direction, most of the change that matters has already taken place,” he said. Bin Laden’s role “for some time has been more as a symbol and a source of ideology than an instigator of operations. That role will continue, dead as well as alive.”