How will Al-Qaida plan attacks without bin Laden?

Analysis: The "boomerang effect" will likely make its appearance soon. The only question is when and where.

By BOAZ GANOR
May 3, 2011 17:02
4 minute read.
Police stand near a wanted poster of bin Laden

Bin Laden wanted poster 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters)

Even without its infamous leader, al-Qaida continues to operate.

Osama bin Laden did not only establish al-Qaida. He took the idea of a global Islamic caliphate and turned it into an operational plan. He became a role model, the representative of a Jihadist vision shared by millions of followers.

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Above all, bin Laden established a global Jihad terror network. The organization, of which al-Qaida serves as its epicenter, is bolstered by other regional Jihadist terrorist groups including those throughout the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen and headed by the Awlaaki, the Maghreb organization created on the basis of the Algerian GSPC, and in Iraq.

Notably, these organizations were more active in recent years and are perhaps more dangerous than the core al-Qaida group whose leadership was busy worrying about self-preservation, issuing false threats and inciting Muslim extremists around the world to carry out terrorist attacks.

This includes, for example, the recent attempted attack on passenger and freight aircraft using explosives hidden in printers, the attempted bombing of an airliner in Detroit and a car bomb in New York’s Times Square. All of these attempts were designed and planned by al-Qaida based in Yemen.

Bin Laden's assassination does not affect the capabilities of these organizations and, in fact, only raises their motivation to perpetrate revenge attacks.



Beyond the core circle of al-Qaida and its proxies, there exists throughout the Western world, a vast network of independent and local Jihadists operating in Muslim communities. Inspired by al-Qaida leaders, independent homegrown terrorists personally incite and initiate suicide operations but do so without direction from or operational connection to al-Qaida.

This complex Jihad terrorist network has now lost its global leader and symbol but not its terrorist capability. Therefore, it must be considered that terrorist elements will try to avenge the death of their leader in three ways. In the near future, home-grown terrorists will likely try to carry out shooting attacks, plant explosive devices and perhaps even attempt suicide attacks. These attempts target American sites and symbols in Arab and Muslim countries such as embassies, tourists and companies such as McDonalds or Coca Cola. Alternatively, attacks might be carried out in the West by radical Islamic elements stemming from within the local Muslim community.

Another possibility is that Jihadist organizations maintaining operational relations with al-Qaida will try to perpetrate more complex and serious attacks against American and Western targets across the globe, especially within the United States.

In the long term, it is more than likely that core al-Qaida elements, led by bin Laden's successor and deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, likely the organization's strategic ideologue, will try to carry out a mega-attack based on the September 11 model to avenge bin Laden’s assassination.

This "boomerang effect" occurs when terrorist organizations are more motivated to take revenge in response to counter-terrorism activities or the targeted killing of a leader. In this case, the motivation of al Qaida’s core group to carry out a mega terrorist attack is at its peak. It is assumed that leaders of the organization and possibly bin Laden himself had prepared contingency plans to avenge their death if and when eliminated. But whether al-Qaida has the operational capability required to carry out an attack is questionable. If we judge by the gap between the threats made by bin Laden and Zawahiri and their inability to perpetrate them in recent years, it is possible that despite their high motivation, al-Qaida will face difficulty carrying out attacks.

Another question is whether bin Laden’s assassination highlights the Obama administration’s successful counter-terrorism strategy. There can be no doubt that the elimination of al-Qaida’s leader in Pakistan reflects high US intelligence and operational capabilities. Such operations require accurate, timely intelligence and close coordination between intelligence agencies and operations forces. For this alone, US security officials should be commended.

But it took the US 10 long years since September 11 to locate bin Laden and execute this successful operation. And the fact that bin Laden was probably in a suburb near Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, for a lengthy period of time and under the nose of US intelligence deployed in Pakistan, indicates both the limits of US intelligence and Pakistan’s dual policy of dealing with terrorism.

It is plausible to believe that if Pakistan was a true US ally and had made every effort to help locate bin Laden, this operation would not only now have taken place. President Obama is trying to paint this operational success as proof of his administration's counter-terrorism policy.

This policy is justifiable, according to the White House’s adviser on terrorism. He claimed the US is not fighting Islamists and Jihadists, but rather, al-Qaida terrorists. This policy could possibly “crush the serpent's head” but it will not kill its body. The body will simply grow new heads and will continue to multiply.

As Obama correctly insists, America and the West are not at war with Islam, but must recognize that they are engaged in a long and exhaustive battle against a broad group of organizations, political movements, radical activists and sympathizers who seek the establishment of an Islamist caliphate throughout the world and who are not shy to engage in violence and terror to achieve these goals. Ultimately, the outcome of this war of attrition remains uncertain.

The writer is the founder and Executive Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He also serves as Deputy Dean, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.


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