NAIROBI, Kenya -- With the death of Osama bin Laden, a constellation of al-Qaida affiliates stretching from Africa to the Middle East, and linked by ideology and allegiance to his core values and tactics, is poised to produce the next generation of leaders and operatives, terrorism experts say.
Yemen, in particular, is likely to become a prominent refuge and operational arena for al-Qaida loyalists, possibly creating an even bigger challenge for the Obama administration, they said. The poor and unstable Middle Eastern nation is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has tried to attack the United States twice since 2009.
"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. "Yemen will become an even more significant theater than Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months and years."
The heir apparent is Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's right-hand man, according to The Associated Press. But al-Zawahri is a harsh, divisive figure who lacks the charisma and mystique that bin Laden used to hold together al-Qaida's factions. Without bin Laden, intelligence officials believe the group could splinter and weaken.
It's too early to tell how exactly al-Qaida would change with its founder and supreme mentor gone, but the group under al-Zawahri would likely be further radicalized, unleashing a new wave of attacks to avenge bin Laden's killing, the AP said.
Yemen will not be the only area of concern for the United States and its allies.
In North and West Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has killed Westerners and staged suicide bombings. Kidnappings for ransom are growing, infusing large sums of cash into the group's coffers. The group is believed to have perpetrated last week's bombing of a popular cafe in Marrakech, Morocco, that killed 16, mostly foreigners.
Bin Laden's death arrives as Yemen is facing its biggest political crisis in more than three decades. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a vital American ally in counterterrorism, is clinging to power as momentum builds on the streets and in Arab capitals for his ouster, inspired by the populist rebellions that have gripped the region.
Saleh has agreed to step down within 30 days after a formal agreement is signed that grants him and his family immunity, but so far the talks have been bogged down by mistrust and disagreement over core demands in the deal.
U.S. officials are deeply concerned about a post-Saleh government. His sons and nephews control crucial security agencies, including American-trained counterterrorism units.
Some key facts about the chief organizer of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden's closest mentor:
Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, he is the son of a pharmacology professor and grandson of grand imam of the important al-Azhar Mosque.
Graduates from Egypt's most prestigious medical school in 1974.
Joins the militant Egyptian Islamic Jihad when it is founded in 1973. When members pose as soldiers and assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, he is among 301 people arrested. Al-Zawahri is cleared of involvement in the death, but spends 3 years in jail for possession of an unlicensed pistol.