While a top White House official Monday described the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden as a “strategic blow to al-Qaida,” the question remains: Will the terrorist organization be crippled or inspired by its leader’s demise?
Al-Qaida likely has been stunned by Sunday’s events in Abbottabad – its morale depleted, its members searching for direction, said Peter Caram, a counterterrorism intelligence consultant. But whenever bin Laden’s successor emerges, he could feel pressure to send a quick, clear message to the West.
“Whoever is going to replace bin Laden obviously will be more radicalized, if he can be, because he’s going to have to set something in motion quickly and effectively in order to give al-Qaida back some level of credibility,” Caram said. “That’s what we’re afraid of at this point.”
Caram said al-Qaida’s No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, likely will be considered the immediate replacement, but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if one of bin Laden’s revenge-seeking sons ultimately rises to the top.
Vows to avenge bin Laden’s death appeared quickly in Islamist militant online forums. "God's revenge on you, you Roman dog, God's revenge on you crusaders... this is a tragedy brothers, a tragedy," one member wrote.
Last week, the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks released a document saying that suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, detained at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, warned the U.S. that if bin Laden were captured or killed, al-Qaida would unleash a “nuclear hellstorm” on the West. Mohammed claimed the terrorists had hidden a nuclear bomb in Europe.
Al-Qaida is believed to have built a lethal, global network, with affiliates reaching into in the Mideast, Africa, Europe, Latin America, the U.S. and Canada. And it has operated without bin Laden as a day-to-day tactician, said Paul Pillar, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
“The instigation of most operations has been at the periphery, not the center,” he said.
While the network remains a threat, the core al-Qaida leadership has been weakened by years of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. It has not staged a successful attack in the West since London bombings that killed 52 people in 2005.
Al-Qaida also has been hurt ideologically by uprisings in the Arab world by ordinary people seeking democracy and human rights – notions dismissed by bin Laden.