Death of leader expected to have little effect on al-Qaida, experts say

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In the long run, Osama bin Laden's death Sunday at the hands of an American military assault will have little impact on the strength and actions of al-Qaida.

That was the consensus of several counterterrorism experts interviewed Monday in the aftermath of bin Laden's death.

Kathleen Carley, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies the social networks formed by terrorists, said bin Laden's influence in al-Qaida had been waning in recent years anyway, and the organization has evolved into an amalgamation of fairly autonomous cells around the world.

In today's al-Qaida, "things don't happen because some central leader says 'You go do this,' and so as a result, the removal of any one leader does not break up the activities of the cells," she said.

"If [President George W.] Bush had killed bin Laden in 2002, the impact would have been much, much greater," added Victor Asal, a terrorism expert at the State University of New York's University at Albany. "But al-Qaida's been under tremendous pressure for years, and so there's been a level of decentralization" that significantly lessened bin Laden's importance.

Even though the experts felt there would be little long-term effect from bin Laden's killing, they agreed there may be immediate attempts to retaliate against the United States.

"There will be a lot of pressure on al-Qaida to prove that it's still alive and exists," said John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University.

But Mr. Horgan also speculated that those attacks are more likely to occur against U.S. embassies or troop emplacements outside America, because the level of security inside the country's borders is at a high level now.

"There's no question his death will have a short-term unifying effect," Mr. Horgan added. "He's going to be this generation's Che Guevara. We'll see him on posters and on T-shirts. He has said for many years he wanted to die in martyrdom and now he's achieved that."

On the other hand, the recent pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the Middle East and North Africa will blunt the impact of his killing, the experts said.

"The uprisings that have occurred in Bahrain and Yemen and Egypt and Libya," Ms. Carley said, "mean that there is a lot of other stuff going on now and he hasn't been in the news as much. He will still look like a martyr to some people, but it won't be as strong an effect as it would have been years ago."

Ironically, bin Laden's success as a charismatic leader may have sown some of the seeds of al-Qaida's current weakness, the researchers said.

The evolution of autonomous al-Qaida cells in other countries led to such leaders as the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, who became infamous in America for his beheadings of kidnapped Westerners, and sowed controversy among Muslims with such assaults as a suicide bombing attack in Jordan that killed many members of a Muslim wedding party.

That weakened al-Qaida's image and hurt the reputation of bin Laden's chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said Mr. Horgan.

While he is officially second in command of al-Qaida, Mr.Zawahiri "doesn't have an ounce of the charisma of bin Laden himself," he said. "He's a very divisive figure."

In fact, if there is anyone poised to assume bin Laden's leadership role in the future, several experts said, it is Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, head of al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula.

Born in the United States, Mr. Awlaki is fluent in English, a charismatic preacher and makes heavy use of the Web to spread his message, said Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent who teaches counterterrorism at the University of Southern California.

"Do I think he's going to immediately ascend to the throne?" Mr. Southers asked. "No. But do I think he can be ignored? Not at all. He looks like the next-generation leader."

Not everyone thinks the Yemen-based al-Qaida operation is powerful, though.

Sa'eed Obaid, a Yemeni specialist in al-Qaida affairs, said Monday that the group in Yemen has relatively few members, and they have carried out only one successful attack -- the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 in the port of Aden.

And the recent mass demonstrations against Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have pulled attention away from al-Qaida, he said.

"This has been the strongest hit against al-Qaida," Mr. Obaid said, "because people proved that they can demand what they want peacefully without doing suicidal attacks and killing innocents."

Ali Saeed, a reporter at the Yemen Times newspaper, said al-Qaida traditionally recruits its members from those who are "young and poor."

"However, I believe that these young people are now calling for freedom peacefully, which paralyzes al-Qaida."

In the end, bin Laden's death "is really a story about terrorist psychology," said Mr. Horgan. "The man is dead but his ideas live on, and we're seeing how his ideas have given rise to action all over the globe.

"But when the dust settles ... I think we'll find that his death has really not changed the situation that much."


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. Malak Shaher: mshaher@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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