The death of Osama bin Laden will have sent remaining al Qaeda leaders diving for cover. Drone strikes already have decimated their number. Bin Laden's death represents a major breach of security. His lieutenants must worry that documents captured at his hideout will lead the Americans to them, or that Pakistan, embarrassed by al Qaeda's presence in Pakistan and America's humiliating raid, may preempt further American strikes with apprehensions of terrorist leaders. No mode of communication is safe for the terrorist leaders. It is the line-level, individual instruments of al Qaeda's terrorist enterprise who seek martyrdom, not its general command.
Al Qaeda will seek to carry out some dramatic act of revenge—eventually—to demonstrate to its foes, and more importantly its followers that bin Laden's death does not end the terrorist campaign. But al Qaeda would be doing exactly the same thing had bin Laden not been killed.
Meanwhile, bin Laden's death may inspire spontaneous attacks by self-proclaimed jihadists anywhere in the world, but planned terrorist attacks take longer to prepare. Al Qaeda operates at capacity, attacking when it can. It has no terrorist reserves waiting to be ordered into battle. For now, al Qaeda's warnings of revenge will remain the realm of rhetoric. Whatever it eventually succeeds in doing will be labeled as retaliation, but there will be no new terrorist attack that otherwise would not have occurred.
Wary of communicating with each other and with al Qaeda's field commands, al Qaeda central could become more isolated, more dependent on its affiliates, allied groups, and individual acolytes. An already decentralized enterprise will become even more decentralized.
Loss of unity is a longer-term danger. Osama bin Laden was the architect, founder, initial financier, and leader of al Qaeda. Most importantly, by his own survival, bin Laden maintained al Qaeda's unanimity of focus in an inherently fractious movement. No successor will speak with his authority.
We attached the label of number two to Ayman al-Zawahiri, but there is no guaranteed succession. Zawahiri is still perceived as an Egyptian, and as rigidly doctrinaire, argumentative rather than the conciliator that bin Laden was reported to be. Other possible successors carry Libyan or Kashmiri tags to their names. Their elevation, or assertion of leadership, could send a message that the group in the future will be run by a particular faction, or that it will focus on one particular front as opposed to another. Al Qaeda is formally ruled by a council. It would not be surprising to see that remain for a while—a committee presiding over autonomous field commanders.
A single figure or figurehead may ultimately emerge, but leadership of a terrorist group is gained through ruthless commitment, perceived prowess, and treachery against rivals. And like a television reality show, contestants will be eliminated.
The biggest danger to al Qaeda in the long run is its irrelevance. Al Qaeda was dying politically even before bin Laden was killed. Its ideology remains irrelevant to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. While bin Laden daily plotted how to kill more Americans, protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East demanded democracy, an end to corruption, economic opportunity—not unending war with infidels or the restoration of an 8th-century caliphate.
This commentary appeared on the National Journal's National Security blog.
Brian Michael Jenkins is senior advisor to the President at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and the author of Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (2008, Prometheus Books).
This commentary originally appeared on National Journal on May 13, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.