The Implications of Osama Bin Laden’s Death For Counter Terrorism Over The Longer TermSpecial forces

The following looks at the implications posed for counter-terrorism by the killing of Osama Bin Laden on 1st May, 2011, by a covert US Special Forces team inserted into Pakistani sovereign territory without Pakistan’s prior approval or knowledge. This action raised several uncertainties that will have varying consequences for Western societies.

1st of May 2011, a team of highly trained US Navy Seals raid deep into Pakistani sovereign territory. Their target, a private residential compound in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad; their mission, bring to an end the 13-year manhunt for the most wanted person on the planet, Osama Bin Laden. The operation was a significant success in the United States of America’s ongoing counter-terrorism campaign, representing the culmination of years of work by intelligence agencies that resulted in Bin Laden’s death.

US President, Barack Obama, states in his congratulations to the intelligence community on the 20th of May, during a visit to the CIA, that Bin Laden’s involvement in the Al Qaeda core was both symbolic and operational:

“We not only took out the symbolic and operational leader of Al-Qaeda, but we walked off with his files, the largest treasure trove ever seized from a terrorist leader.”

The death of Bin Laden will have sent Al Qaeda’s remaining leaders diving for cover with increased anxiety from this major security breach. Their number already decimated by constant drone attacks and with no safe mode of communications open to them, Bin Laden’s lieutenants must be concerned that intelligence gathered from captured documents taken from Bin Laden’s compound, will lead the United States closer to their apprehension or destruction, and impede current operations.

The two main schools of thought regarding the implications of Bin Laden’s death for counter-terrorism include, firstly, that his death will be a largely symbolic event due to the development of Al Qaeda as an ideological movement with him as the inspirational leader and, secondly, that Bin Laden maintained an active role in directing the Al Qaeda core and its affiliates in implementing attacks .

Other uncertainties that will further flow from the US action include:

  • Will Bin Laden’s symbolic status or his strategic and operational involvement within Al Qaeda core have the greater impact on counter terrorism?
  • What is the outcome for Al Qaeda’s affiliates? Does Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new leader for the Al Qaeda core, have their continued support and allegiance? Has the likelihood of attacks from lone wolf or home-grown radicals increased? Do Al Qaeda’s affiliates attempt to emulate them?
  • What are the implications from the US’s Special Operations surgical strike into Pakistani territory without prior approval? How will it affect the continued relations between the two nations?
  • Will the US rethink its strategy? Does this mean they will draw down from Afghanistan sooner? Will they develop a more sustainable counter-terrorism plan?

The short-term future will no doubt see Bin Laden’s death directly affect operational matters. That is, we may see acts of revenge and retribution or, more likely, acts portrayed as operations by Al Qaeda or other Islamist groups as retaliation for the death of their Sheikh. In the long term, we are more likely to see operations fuelled by the legacy Bin Laden developed, a strategy of warfare based on a sequence of low-cost events – inexpensive, well-planned and well-implemented actions formulated to undermine and disrupt the infrastructure and systems vital to the US economy.

Osama Bin Laden: Strategic And/Or Symbolic?

For years, Bin Laden was thought to have only a peripheral role in directing Al Qaeda as he was presumed to be so isolated for his own safety that he could barely communicate with the outside world; widely seen as little more than a figurehead. However, it seems the opposite was more likely. Bruce Hoffman in Foreign Affairs believes Bin Laden “played an active role at every level of al Qaeda operations: from planning to targeting and from networking to propaganda.”

This is further supported by a senior intelligence official at the Pentagon on the 7th of May, 2011 who refers to information collected from the Abbottabad raid:

“The materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that Bin Laden remained an active leader in Al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group and continued to direct even tactical details of the group’s management and to encourage plotting. The materials show that Bin Laden remained focused on inspiring and engineering international terrorism and specifically on attacking the US.”

While Bin Laden was more operationally active than previously believed, this position would be far easier to fill than his role as a symbolic figurehead for what has become a network of affiliated and allied groups, as well as a wider movement of sympathisers. Praised for his humility and generosity, as well as his courage under fire in Afghanistan, he was widely respected in jihadist circles. When individuals and other groups joined Al Qaeda, they swore allegiance directly to Bin Laden, rather than his organisation, making him the focal point for a network built on personal loyalties.

Al Qaeda’s Leadership

Bin Laden’s leadership, guidance and overall importance for Al Qaeda and the adverse effects his death will have on the group could not be exaggerated. Although his operational role diminished post 9/11, Bin Laden was the epitome of a jihadist leader within Al Qaeda. Having devised the group’s strategy, he was a strong symbol of resistance and it was the power of Bin Laden’s charisma that allowed Al Qaeda to survive after 9/11 and become the brand name that attracted individuals and other Islamic radical groups.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s replacement as the head of the Al Qaeda core, has what seems to be the perfect resume for an aspiring terrorist leader; having formed his first terrorist cell in 1966 at only 15 while plotting against the Egyptian regime, and then spending several years in an Egyptian gaol after the assassination of the President in 1981. He then placed himself at Bin Laden’s side in 1988, when Al Qaeda was founded.  Al Zawahiri has been labelled Al Qaeda Number 2, but there is no guarantee of his remaining in control after the succession. He is still perceived as rigidly opinionated, argumentative and authoritarian – in stark contrast to the conciliator that Bin Laden was reported to be.

The Al Qaida core in Pakistan has been clearly weakened operationally post May 1 and deemed less capable of planning and carrying out significant attacks by US experts, while its affiliates have gained strength and consequently diversified the broader threat geographically and ethnically.  General Carter F. Ham, the chief of the US Africa Command, indicated during a September interview that the rise of regional affiliates of Al Qaeda is especially worrisome .

The biggest danger to Al Qaeda in the long run is its irrelevance; it was dying politically before Bin Laden’s death. Its ideology remains irrelevant to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. While Bin Laden plotted how to kill Americans abroad and at home, protestors across the Middle East demanded democracy and an end to corruption and economic opportunity. They didn’t seem interested in a continued war with infidels or the restoration of the caliphate.

Al Qaeda’s Affiliates And Retribution

The Al Qaeda core is suffering and attention is increasingly focused on its affiliates.  The most notable of these include Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab in Somalia. In an article published on the 2nd of May, the day after Bin Laden’s death, analysts from Stratfor Global Intelligence stated:

“[the Al Qaeda core] central group including leaders like Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, has been eclipsed by other jihadist actors on the physical battlefield, and over the past two years it has even been losing its role as an ideological leader of the jihadist struggle.”

The Stratfor analysts elaborate that the new primary threat is now posed by Al Qaeda franchise groups such AQAP in Yemen and AQIM in northwest Africa.

AQAP sits atop the affiliates list and continues to demonstrate its growing ambitions and strong desire to carry out attacks outside of its region. The AQAP leader has publicly proclaimed his group’s allegiance to Ayman Al Zawahiri as the new amir of Al Qaeda in July 2011.

The most recent edition of Inspire, AQAP’s propaganda publication, was dedicated to Bin Ladin’s memory and martyrdom and it clearly endorses Al Zawahiri as the leader of global jihad saying, “now Shaykh Ayman carries the banner” of jihad.

AQIM is attempting to associate itself with Al Qaeda’s transnational struggle yet remains an organisation that continues to carry out the majority of its attacks against security forces in the north-east of Algeria. However, no group has made a bigger name for itself in the kidnapping-for-ransom business than AQIM; it is one of the foremost sources of revenue for Al Qaeda-related groups. AQIM has also sworn allegiance to Al Zawahiri. In an interview on the 7th of July from Abu Ubaidah, a member of the group’s shura restated their allegiance to Al Qaeda post May 1:

“In the name of myself and my brothers in the organisation, I renew my oath of allegiance to our favoured emir, Sheikh Abu Muhammad Ayman al-Zawahiri, and we say to him: ‘O wise sheikh, for as long as you are our leader on the path of truth and jihad in the name of God, we swear to you that we will listen and obey.’”

In the Horn of Africa, the Al Shabaab, an organisation composed of a range of groups with varying motivations and interests,  conducted its first major attack outside of Somalia last year when it claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that killed 76 people during the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda.

Al Qaeda’s presence within Al Shabaab is increasingly leading that group to pose a regional threat with growing trans-regional ties to other affiliates, and to participate more actively in Al Qaeda-inspired violence.

In addition, Al Qaeda has forged closer ties with some of the other militant groups in the South Asia region; for example, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network, providing the group with additional capabilities to draw on.

Al Qaeda is likely to become an increasingly loose network of jihadist groups with conflicting priorities, rather than the centralised organisation headed by Bin Laden. Bin Laden’s death could undermine the leadership’s centrality in what has developed into a network of regional affiliates, allied groups and sympathisers.  However, with strong, adaptable affiliates pledging their allegiance to Al Qaeda’s core and Zawahiri, it is posing an interesting development to analysts as it implies a continuation of Bin Laden’s ideology and the willingness of these affiliates to continue the jihadist struggle as a centralised network.

It is likely Al Qaeda will seek to carry out some dramatic act of revenge in retribution for Bin Laden’s death and to demonstrate to its followers that Bin Laden’s death does not end the terrorist campaign. [Continued in Part 2.]

Kenneth Baker
Kenneth Baker is a Masters student at Macquarie University’s Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter–Terrorism (PICT)