Osama bin Laden was the face of an organization that radicalized roughly one-fifth of the Islamic faith, convincing young men and women to sacrifice their lives for a fatwa — an Islamic religious ruling — in which he declared that the United States was evil and had to be taken down. As the world watched al-Qaida grow over the last 30 years, many wondered how he did it.
“No one else in al-Qaida has the charisma and the ability to hold that organization together as did Osama bin Laden,” said Peter Mansoor, associate professor in history and former executive officer to General David Petraeus.
With his death Sunday, the question now remains, what will become of the militant Islamic terrorist group?
Bin Laden’s “death does not mark the end of our effort,” President Barack Obama said on Sunday evening. “There’s no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us.”
The president announced Sunday evening that the United States found and killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was the founder and leader of al-Qaida, which officially came into being in the 1980s and turned against the United States shortly thereafter.
The death of bin Laden “certainly is a blow to the psyche of the organization. There is no doubt about it. However in terms of the long-term viability of the organization it does very little,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, based in Washington, D.C., and a former counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “This is something that I think most Americans need to be very aware of.”
Bin Laden formed the radical, anti-Western group in Pakistan, the country in which he was killed 30 years later, despite the fact that he is a Saudi and his right-hand man, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian. Bin Laden financed the group from his personal funds as the son of an oil tycoon.
“Bin Laden was very wise in the way that he constructed his organization in terms of its survivability,” Schanzer told The Lantern.
The group originated with a structure similar to that of a corporation, with bin Laden and his close advisers at the top. Subsequently the organization fostered autonomous organizations throughout the Middle East that supported the anti-Western and anti-capitalist ideology of al-Qaida but had local objectives. Finally, bin Laden and the organization were successful in radicalizing individuals and small cells that now act independently of the corporate structure.
“If you think about these layers that have been created over time, the legacy of bin Laden will live far beyond the man himself,” Schanzer said.
His death as the ideological center and commanding leader leaves a gaping hole in the operation. Most experts, including Schanzer, believe that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, will become the next leader of the militant group.
“He has been making more of the statements after attacks and failed attacks by the al-Qaida network and he probably knows more about the operations from the top than anyone,” Schanzer said.
Though there are others, like Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki, who is the leader of an al-Qaida franchise group in the Arabian Peninsula, who might also step into leadership positions, Schanzer and other analysts leave open the possibility that the organization might completely change in structure as well.
Other experts stress that the change has more to do with the psyche of the group than anything else.
“The importance of bin Laden’s death is more psychological — the enemies of Islam-ism feel empowered, the Jihadists themselves feel awakened,” said Daniel Pipes, director for the Middle East Forum, a right-wing think tank located in Philadelphia. “What practical implications that will have, I can’t say. But the next few days will be important.”
Pipes told The Lantern that he believes that al-Qaida is a “shadow of itself” and no longer holds the organizational capabilities it once had.
“Overall, it’s a win for the enemies of Jihadism and a loss for the Jihadi movement, but it’s in the minds,” Pipes said.
The possibility of a retributive strike against the United States is very real, Schanzer said. But the real question is whether or not al-Qaida is currently capable of enacting such an attack.
One scenario would be that al-Qaida has sleeper cells in the United States or other parts of the world that have been inactive for years but were told to take action if some sort of major blow to the organization occurred.
“It all depends in whether the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence agencies have been able to cleanse the country of whatever al-Qaida elements have been here in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and have they been able to prevent further Jihadiis from coming onto our shores,” Schanzer said.
That communication between FBI, CIA and homeland security was something that was greatly criticized after the 9/11 attacks. Some people even believe that the attacks could have been prevented if there had been better communication between agencies about known terrorists.
Lawrence Wright, a fellow at the Center for Law and Security at New York University Law School, went so far as to call the communication a hindrance to justice in his widely popular book, “The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
FBI headquarters has requested that there be no comments made by local FBI on the matter at this time, according to an email from Harry Trombitas, a local special agent. However, the FBI website has been updated and now lists bin Laden as deceased.
Schanzer also said he believes Pakistan and Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East will remain hospitable toward senior officials in al-Qaida, which will have a great effect on the viability of the group.
Media in Saudi Arabia, where the terrorist leader was born, said they hope this will be a step in fighting terrorism. Saudi News Today reported “Osama Bin Laden Killed by U.S. Raid on Compound, Obama Says.” Media in Yemen, bin Laden’s ethnic homeland, welcome his death as the beginning of the end of terror.
“The bottom line here is that the Jihadist ideology that was made famous by al-Qaida is not going anywhere,” Schanzer said. “While this was a big day for the United States and certainly a win in the larger scheme of things it was still one battle won a larger war that is going to be, I think, a part of the American renegade for quite some time.”
Jaime Ortega contributed to this story.