Ten years after plotting the most devastating terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday in a guarded compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. But the organization he put together to launch the September 11, 2001, attacks is quite different today. A more decentralized al-Qaida is expected to continue to stage attacks, and officials will continue counterterrorist efforts to stop them.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says the death of Osama bin Laden is a serious body blow that will open up new fissures within the al-Qaida structure. "This is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it at all. It will cause al-Qaida to go through a succession crisis, something that they’ve never had to do before. And there are splits within the organization between the Gulf Arabs and the Egyptians that are in it, and it is likely that an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is going to take control. So, good on ‘em. Let them try to deal with that because I think that the organization will have a great deal of difficulty dealing with that kind of question," he said.
But, he adds, bin Laden’s death is not a knockout punch to the terrorist organization. As he and other analysts point out, the al-Qaida of 2011 is still alive but is not the same as the one that launched the attacks in New York and Washington 10 years ago. Today, Hayden says, al-Qaida is more geographically dispersed and less structured, with so-called "franchises" planning and operating more independently.
"As good news as this is, this is a network, not a hierarchy. So bin Laden was important, but it is a network. Power and decision-making are diffuse, and there’s an awful lot of energy and power in what we call the franchises, particularly the one in Yemen. So, this isn’t over by a long shot. And we probably need to stand by for immediate violent reaction on the part of the al-Qaida network," he said.
Bin Laden disappeared after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that ousted the Taliban government that had hosted him. The U.S. and its allies expended enormous amounts of money, equipment, and intelligence resources over 10 years not only to track him down but to attack al-Qaida and a resurgent Taliban movement.
Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in Britain, says bin Laden’s death is not a "game-changer" in the war against violent jihadists.
"His isolation has been such and, I think, American successes in the region have also been so significant - the drone strikes and the general downward pressure on al-Qaida - that he is in that sense a more marginal figure. I think that he gives the Americans closure on the 9-11 thing up to a point - though, of course, (Ayman) al-Zawahiri is still at large - that I don’t think that he is a significant operational impact on the sort of day-to-day terrorist operations, either in the United States or anywhere else," he said.
Al-Qaida no longer needs the kind of physical training camps that it set up in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Things like rudimentary bomb instruction can be conducted via the Internet. Analysts point out that many - although not all - of the recently intercepted al-Qaida-linked terrorist plots have been far less ambitious than the 9-11 attacks.
Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College believes that with bin Laden’s death, more of the counterterrorist effort will concentrate outside of South Asia. "The al-Qaida/international Islamist terrorist network has already fragmented in various ways. And now we have Yemen and North Africa and other places to be focused on or concerned about. I expect that some of the focus will begin to shift there," he said.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says the jubilation in counterterrorism circles will be short-lived. "I know the people who would have been in the room the past several days, exhausting themselves going through this. There will be great satisfaction, they’ll feel good, and then they’ll go back to work because they, above all other folks, know this isn’t over," he said.
Officials hope a cache of documents seized in the raid on bin Laden’s compound will open up new leads on the whereabouts of other key remaining al-Qaida figures.