After all, his heir apparent, Ayman al-Zawahri, is a harsh, divisive figure who lacks the charisma and mystique that bin Laden used to hold together al-Qaida’s various factions. Without bin Laden’s iconic figure running al-Qaida, intelligence officials believe the group could splinter and weaken.
But if there is one thing al-Qaida has proved it is able to do, it is adapt to adversity. Its foot soldiers learned to stay off their mobile phones to avoid US wiretaps. Their technical wizards cooked up cutting edge encryption software that flummoxed American code-breakers. And a would-be bomber managed to defeat billions of dollars in airline security upgrades with explosives tucked in his underwear.
But the al-Qaida network he leaves behind is far different from the one behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
Today, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan is constantly on the run, hiding from US Predator drones. Communication is slow. The ability to plan, finance and carry out attacks has been greatly reduced. Al-Qaida franchises have sprung up in Yemen, Iraq and Algeria, where terrorists fight local grievances under the global banner of jihad.
In that regard, bin Laden’s death could be far more damaging psychologically than operationally.
Al-Zawahri has been running al-Qaida operations for years as bin Laden cut himself off from the outside world. There were no phone or Internet lines running into his compound. And he used a multi-layered courier system to pass messages. It was old-fashioned and safe but it made taking part in any operation practically impossible. Bin Laden had been reduced to a figurehead, counterterrorism experts say.
Today, the greatest terrorist threat to the US is considered to be the al- Qaida franchise in Yemen. The Yemen branch almost took down a US-bound airliner in 2009 and nearly detonated explosives on two US cargo planes last autumn. Those operations were carried out without direct involvement from bin Laden.
Al-Qaida’s leadership in Yemen also managed to do what bin Laden never could: adapt the message for Western audiences and package it in English. The terrorist magazine, Inspire, coaches would-be bombers on how to make explosives. It teaches them that they don’t need to seek training in Pakistan or Yemen, where they could be intercepted by US spies. Rather, they are instructed to become one-man terror cells that pick targets and carry out attacks without any instruction from al -Qaida’s core leadership.
Despite having its leader eliminated al-Qaida will probably continue to exist, terrorism experts say.
Within hours of bin Laden’s death, for instance, members of groups affiliated with the al-Qaida- linked Haqqani network in Pakistan were already promising that the day-to- day mission on the ground would not change.