Al-Qaeda’s leadership must scatter, assuming that everything bin Laden knew about it is now being carefully read by CIA analysts. Many high-ranking members probably already had pre-prepared evacuation plans, and new identities and shelters ready for them. But even so, their sudden, rapid movements will expose them to a greater risk of detection and capture, and should they continue to elude U.S. and international security forces, their ability to plot murder against the West will be greatly limited, as they will remain preoccupied with looking after their own safety. While the threat al-Qaeda poses will remain (and may in fact increase in the short term as it seeks retribution), anything that panics and disrupts its leadership, potentially ruining plans and disrupting operations, is good news indeed.
When al-Qaeda does eventually regroup, it will find that attacking the West is no longer its only concern. Al-Qaeda was very much tethered to Osama bin Laden, its charismatic, wealthy founder. The organization has grown and now has branches operating all over the world (many of which are no doubt unknown to us). If the organization is to remain effective, someone will have to take command, but it does not seem apparent that there is any leader-in-waiting willing and able to step up and replace bin Laden. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long-time second-in-command, has been al-Qaeda’s operational commander for years, and is admired by jihadists for his rhetoric in favor of holy war against the West, but is considered by Western intelligence to lack the charisma and personal likeability of bin Laden.
Absurd as it is to think of bin Laden as likeable, it is an inescapable fact that many of history’s most brutal madmen have had tremendous personal magnetism. Adolf Hitler electrified crowds with his speeches; Che Guevara is still beloved by many wannabe-revolutionaries to this day. What al-Zawahiri possesses in competence and ideological purity, he may lack in the people management skills necessary to hold together a geographically disparate group of fanatics.
How al-Qaeda would select a new leader is also an open question: Since the raid on bin Laden, it can be assumed that the group is being extremely careful about communicating electronically, but gathering together in one place to communicated personally is no less risky: any specific al-Qaeda leader that had been discovered by the West could lead an armed Predator drone to the rest of the organization’s leadership. This might help explain why al-Qaeda’s statement on bin Laden’s death was signed only by the group’s “general leadership.” Al-Qaeda leadership probably has no idea yet who will take over, and many of the presumed successors have reason to fear that the documents captured by the U.S. might have compromised their personal security.
Al-Qaeda remains a threat to the West, and will no doubt wish to strike out to avenge its fallen leader. And its ideology can still corrupt others into forming their own “home-grown” terror organizations that seek to carry out al-Qaeda’s goals without any formal connection to the group (such groups are known to have formed in the United States, Britain and Canada over the last several years). But while the danger remains, it has been dealt a significant blow. With luck, additional — perhaps fatal — blows will come in the days and weeks ahead.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.
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