The killing of Osama bin Laden marks a symbolic victory for America in its decade-old war on terrorism, but the influence of the man who once topped the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list was already in decline in the Arab world, experts say.
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Al-Qaida cells are active or rumored to be active across the Arab world. In Iraq, the group has made somewhat of a comeback since US forces officially withdrew. Libya strongman Muammar Gaddafi says the opposition forces he is fighting are led by the group. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has warned that Al-Qaida operatives are filling the vacuum created by the standoff between his and the opposition.
But experts said that bin Laden, holed up in house in Pakistan, had very little to do with this activity. Islamic groups like Al-Qaida struggled for years to toppled Arab leaders they perceived as secularists and allies of the West, but in the last months it was more liberal movements like Egypt’s April 6 that have succeeded.
“Bin Laden was perceived as a symbolic leader. We are talking about an
organization that had a non-centralized structure. Its cells operated
independent of each other, so management wise or in terms of leadership I
don’t think this is a severe blow to Al-Qaida,” Ayman Khalil, director
of the Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS), Amman, Jordan, told The Media Line
His words were echoed by Yoram Meital, an expert on Al-Qaida at Israel’s
Ben Gurion University. “He was the source of inspiration for at least
15 years, but in practical terms bin Laden's death, with all of its
symbolic importance, doesn’t mean the end of the road for Al-Qaida,” he
Nevertheless, US officials said on Tuesday they hoped bin Laden’s death
would enable them to now destroy the remains of Al-Qaida ‘s central
organization. "We're going to try to take advantage of this opportunity
we have now with the death of Al-Qaida's leader, bin Laden, to ensure
that we're able to destroy that organization," White House
counterterrorism chief John Brennan told NBC's Today
. "We're determined to do so and we believe we can."
Egyptian-born Ayman Zawahiri, long been bin Laden’s No. 2 man, was
moved up to the top spot of the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Others that the
US wants are Anwar Awlaki, an influential leader with Al-Qaida in
Yemen, regarded as especially dangerous because he was born in the U.S.
Analysts also warned about the short-term risk of retaliation.
“For every action there is a reaction,” Khalil said. “I think there will
be one or two spectacular attacks and then it will all return to
America adopted precautionary measures, beefing up security at its
embassies around the Middle East and in fact, the world. Outside the
American Consulate in Jerusalem, guards were seen taking the unusual
step of lining up on the sidewalk every five meters.
Bin Laden was the voice behind Al-Qaida’s central message whereby
America and its allies were cast as the avowed enemies of Islam and
needed to be confronted with violence. His periodic messages, often
delivered on video or audio cassettes, preached this ideology.
Emmanuel Sivan, co-author of Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World
stressed that Islamic fundamentalism “doesn’t begin and end with one
man.” However, he predicted that bin Laden’s death wouldn’t necessarily
spark a wave of anti-American attacks since the Arab world was
preoccupied with its own changes.
“The likelihood that we will see a 'Day of Rage' in the Arab world
following the assassination of Osama bin Laden is low, as many Arab
states are immersed in their own internal problems right now,” he told The Media Line
While Al-Qaida's impact was being eclipsed by less violent philosophies
in the Islamic world, it still held potent pockets of strength,
particularly in Yemen and its frontier with Saudi Arabia.
Since the Al-Qaida attack on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed almost 3,000
people in the US, bin Laden had assumed a mainly inspirational role.
According to Meital, head of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East
Studies and Diplomacy, Al-Qaida was not a hierarchic organization.
“This was a weak link of Al-Qaida but also a source of power from
another perspective, because it is the main reason why it was so
difficult for even the United States with all of its mighty power to put
a hand on Osama bin Laden,” Meital told The Media Line.
Nevertheless, he said, despite Al-Qaida’s waning impact on the changing
Islamic world, its cells were still motivated to harm the Western,
particularly the US “Their struggle will continue,” he predicted.
Bin Laden was the ideological and practical force that held Al-Qaida
together. As an inspirational leader he may prove to be irreplaceable
given that his deputy, Al- Zawahiri, has neither bin Laden’s charisma
“In the eyes of his own followers all over the world, Bin Laden had
established his own unique place,” Meital said. “Killing Bin Laden won’t
necessary lead to someone else replacing him in this organization,
which is very vague and difficult to characterize.”
While Bin Laden’s death may cause a short-term increase in Al-Qaida
activity and possibly even its recruitment, it will likely add to its
slow marginalization in the long run but not its disappearance.
Khalil, of the ACSIS in Amman, said that the root causes that led to the
formation of Al-Qaida were still valid in the Middle East and that
“hanging issues” including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were still
“Without the resolving these hanging issues Al-Qaida will remain,” Khalil said.