US battle much broader than fight against bin Laden

Analysis: America must realize that it has "crushed the serpent’s head" but has not killed the body.

Captured Afghan al Qaeda members 311 R (photo credit: Reuters [file])
Captured Afghan al Qaeda members 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters [file])
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.
Above all, bin Laden established a global jihad terror network. That organization, of which al-Qaida forms the epicenter, is bolstered by regional jihadist terrorist groups including those throughout the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen and headed by the US-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the North African organization created on the basis of the Algerian-based Al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, and in Iraq.
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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 attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit on December 25, 2009, the car bomb in New York’s Times Square that failed to explode on May 1, 2010, and last October’s attempted attacks on passenger and freight aircraft using explosives hidden in printers.
All of these 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 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 operational capability. Therefore one must consider that terrorist elements will try to avenge the death of their leader in three ways.
In the near future, homegrown terrorists will likely try to carry out shooting attacks, plant bombs and perhaps even attempt suicide attacks. These attacks will target American sites and symbols in Arab and Muslim countries such as embassies, foreign tourists and companies such as McDonald’s 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 carry out 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.
Such “boomerang effects” occur when terrorist organizations become 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 deaths if and when they were eliminated.
But whether al-Qaida has the operational capability required to carry out such 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 its 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 in Pakistan of al-Qaida’s leader 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, American 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 and under the nose of US intelligence deployed in the country, 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 have taken place only now.
President Obama is trying to paint this operational success as proof of his administration’s counterterrorism policy. This policy is justified, according to the White House’s advisor on terrorism. He claimed the US is not fighting Islamists and jihadists, but rather al-Qaida terrorists.
But while this policy could possibly “crush the serpent’s head,” it will not kill its body.
The body will simply grow new heads and continue to multiply.
As Obama correctly insists, America and the West are not at war with Islam, but they must recognize that they are engaged in a long and exhausting 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 about engaging in violence and terror to achieve these goals. Ultimately, the outcome of this war of attrition remains uncertain.
Dr. Boaz Ganor is the founder and executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He also serves as deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.