What Al Qaeda Is Thinking Now: Defanged, but Desperate to Show They're Still in the Fight


May 4, 2011

This commentary originally appeared in New York Daily News on May 4, 2011.

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda faces two immediate problems. Organizational survival is the No. 1 goal of any enterprise. Preservation of its leadership is also paramount.

Missile strikes over the course of the last few years had already decimated Al Qaeda's leadership. Now, the death of Bin Laden and the U.S. invasion into his secret compound represent a major breach of Al Qaeda's security. Surviving leaders will be obliged to lie low. No form of communications is now safe.

Al Qaeda's central command will become even more isolated.

At the same time, Al Qaeda must demonstrate to its foes, and more importantly to its followers, that it is still in business. We have already heard the bellicose rhetoric of revenge. But rhetoric alone will not do it.

There may be some spontaneous acts by individuals enraged by Bin Laden's death who are inspired to follow him into martyrdom. But these are the spasms of reaction, not planned retaliatory operations, and will not demonstrate that Al Qaeda can survive Bin Laden.

But Al Qaeda does not have a large reserve of terrorists standing by to retaliate. The terrorist enterprise operates at capacity, attacking when able, as evidenced by the numerous terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, and the more numerous plots that have been interrupted. Constant pressure from intelligence services, law enforcement organizations and military operations has forced Al Qaeda to become decentralized and more dependent on its affiliates, allied groups and local followers.

Recently the organization has placed great emphasis on "do-it-yourself" terrorism, urging volunteers to do whatever they can, wherever they are. This has meant fewer centrally directed operations, with attackers who may be less professional and perhaps more subject to compromise and penetration by law enforcement and intelligence groups.

That makes the enterprise harder to destroy in a single blow. The dispersed galaxies of the Al Qaeda universe will remain a threat, though likely a threat with less robust capabilities.

Osama Bin Laden brought a distinct image and strategy to his effort. The saga of his own life was a good story that made Al Qaeda seem to loom larger than it is. That personal narrative was more important than the group's ideology, if not more so. Bin Laden symbolized unity of the global jihad. Instead of scattered efforts against multiple local foes, he urged a unified campaign against the West and against the United States in particular. His message was that after the Americans were bloodied and forced to withdraw, the local enemies deprived of American support would fall.

It is not clear that Bin Laden's successors, or any single figure, will be able to maintain the unity of the enterprise as Bin Laden did. In fact, it is fair to assume that no single leader will dominate Al Qaeda as did Bin Laden. A central committee may preside over already autonomous field commanders.

The biggest long-term threat to Al Qaeda is irrelevancy. Bin Laden was already dying politically before he was killed. The events of the Arab Spring have demonstrated Al Qaeda's lack of relevance on the Arab street. Demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East want a voice, democracy, an end to corruption and greater economic opportunity. None call for unending warfare against the West or the restoration of an eighth century caliphate.

Bin Laden was an intriguing character who liked to taunt America. The real success in toppling governments was not his, or that of terrorist vanguards, but a consequence of people power.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, and author of "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"

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