Analysis: A death blow to al-Qaida?

Experts: Bin Laden’s death could spark revenge terrorist attacks, but it will likely add to organization's slow marginalization.

Al Qaida Flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Qaida Flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
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.
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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 said.
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. citizen.
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 normal.”
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 nor stature.
“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 lingering.
“Without the resolving these hanging issues Al-Qaida will remain,” Khalil said.