Bin Laden’s death likely to shat­ter al Qaeda

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY BILL GERTZ

U.S. se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say al Qaeda is se­verely weak­ened af­ter los­ing Osama bin Laden, and some an­a­lysts go fur­ther, not­ing cau­tiously that the ter­ror­ist group may be in its death throes from the re­lent­less U.S. and al­lied cam­paign to kill and cap­ture its lead­ers and mem­bers.

The killing of bin Laden, af­ter a 10-year man­hunt, is prompt­ing a re­assess­ment of the threat posed by al Qaeda and whether groups loyal to the long­time se­nior com­man­der will unify be­hind a new leader or frac­ture more.

A U.S. of­fi­cial said May 10 that about 180 strikes have been car­ried out since early 2009, most us­ing mis­siles from re­motely pi­loted air­craft, that have killed about 1,200 mil­i­tants.

In Pak­istan alone, more than a dozen se­nior lead­ers have been killed or cap­tured in re­cent years. U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies es­ti­mate that 12 of the 20 most se­nior al Qaeda lead­ers re­main at large in the re­gion.

White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Tom Donilon said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion late last year as­sessed al Qaeda to be “in the weak­est shape it had been in since 2001.”

“And with [. . . ] the as­sault on the com­pound in Pak­istan and the killing of Osama bin Laden, they are even weaker still,” he said on NBC, not­ing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is press­ing ahead with the war against al Qaeda, even as it re­mains dan­ger­ous and “tries to sur­vive.”

A se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial sug­gested May 7 that, while al Qaeda is a ma­jor threat, bin Laden’s demise could have a greater im­pact be­cause in­tel­li­gence from cap­tured com­puter equip­ment af­ter the May 2 com­mando raid in Pak­istan showed the group lost its top com­man­der, not just its in­spi­ra­tional leader.

Doc­u­ments and videos re­vealed that, far from be­ing a fig­ure­head or spir­i­tual leader, bin Laden was an ac­tive ter­ror­ist com­man­der who pro­vided strate­gic and tac­ti­cal direc­tion for at­tacks and plots, in­clud­ing tar­get­ing of the United States.

“What we now know [. . . ] is that he had an op­er­a­tional and strate­gic role and a pro­pa­ganda role for al Qaeda, which, again, makes the op­er­a­tion [May 2] more sig­nif­i­cant in terms of its ef­fect on al Qaeda and its ef­fect on them try­ing to de­velop ad­di­tional lead­er­ship and carry out op­er­a­tions,” Mr. Donilon said on CNN.

A de­fense of­fi­cial in­volved in coun­tert­er­ror­ism ac­tiv­i­ties said the U.S. gov­ern­ment, and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity specif­i­cally, have been too closely fo­cused on al Qaeda’s top lead­ers.

As a re­sult, there has been a fail­ure to de­vote enough peo­ple and re­sources to un­der­stand­ing and coun­ter­ing what the of­fi­cial said was the greater strate­gic threat posed by rad­i­cal Is­lamism in gen­eral.

Groups such as Hezbol­lah, the Mus­lim Brother­hood and other Is­lamist or­ga­ni­za­tions are grow­ing.

“While the U.S. gov­ern­ment is fo­cused on al Qaeda, the en­tire Mid­dle East and South Asia are go­ing Is­lamist,” the of­fi­cial said.

‘Tun­nel vi­sion’

An­other prob­lem fac­ing U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in the af­ter­math of bin Laden’s death is likely to be what one for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial called “tun- nel vi­sion.” That is when bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia on a sin­gle in­tel­li­gence tar­get pre­vents see­ing the ob­vi­ous, like the fail­ure to pre­dict the 1991 col­lapse of the Soviet Union, the main tar­get of the Cold War.

“There is a ten­dency to just do more of the same,” the for­mer of­fi­cial said.

An­other sign that al Qaeda is dam­aged was noted by a se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial May 7, com­ment­ing on the al Qaeda state­ment about bin Laden’s death.

“We ex­pected that al Qaeda would is­sue a state­ment af­ter his death. But it is note­wor­thy that the group did not an­nounce a new leader, sug­gest­ing it is still tr ying to deal with bin Laden’s demise,” the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said.

Egyp­tian-born al Qaeda No. 2, Ay­man al-Zawahri, is the likely suc­ces­sor, the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said, but “there are strong in­di­ca­tions that [al-Zawahri] is not pop­u­lar within cer tain cir­cles of the group.”

Sev­eral se­nior al Qaeda lead­ers could be named al Qaeda’s new “emir,” he said.

Re­ports from Asia last week stated that al Qaeda’s lead­er­ship coun­cil, or shura, was meet­ing se­cretly to pick a suc­ces­sor.

A re­port on al Qaeda and its af­fil­i­ates pro­duced re­cently by Jane’s Se­cu­rity and Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence Con­sult­ing stated that al Qaeda se­nior lead­ers such as al-Zawahri are no longer the main threat and, as a re­sult, the group has de­cen­tral­ized.

“Un­der sus­tained pres­sure from U.S. and coali­tion forces in the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der re­gion, al Qaeda has been forced to rely to a greater de­gree on af­fil­i­ate groups to sus­tain its pan-Is­lamic ji­had,” said Tim Pip­pard, edi­tor of the re­port, which was pro­duced be­fore bin Laden was killed.

Van­guard sta­tus at risk

With in­de­pen­dent ji­hadist voices in the larger al Qaeda move­ment grow­ing stronger and the lack of a new mass-ca­su­alty at­tack in the West, al Qaeda’s “sta­tus as van­guard of the transna­tional ji­hadist move­ment may dwin­dle away,” the re­port said.

A se­nior coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial said al Qaeda has been “badly dam­aged in re­cent years, but no one should think they’re no longer dan­ger­ous.”

“It’s ab­so­lutely im­per­a­tive that we sus­tain in­tense pres­sure on them,” the of­fi­cial said. “None of the group’s mem­bers should feel safe, as bin Laden’s demise clearly shows.”

Of the af­fil­i­ates, the Ye­men­based Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP), which in­cludes Amer­i­can-born An­war al-Awlaki among its key lead­ers, has emerged as a more dan­ger­ous group than the one headed by bin Ladin.

Other key al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates in­clude the Tar iq-e-Tal­iban Pak­istan, or TTP, and the Haqqani Net­work in Afghanistan.

These groups have been un­able to demon­strate the same kind of global reach as al Qaeda did in or­ga­niz­ing the 19 hi­jack­ers who com­man­deered four com­mer­cial jets, three of which were flown as mis­siles into the World Trade Cen­ter and the Pen­tagon.

The Haqqani Net­work, headed by Jalalud­din Haqqani, an as­so­ciate of bin Laden from the 1980s, learned sui­cide car­bomb­ing from al Qaeda and has used the tech­nique widely in Afghanistan, but so far not out­side the coun­try.

The TTP was linked to the failed Times Square car-bomb­ing, and AQAP has tried and failed twice to blow up U.S. air­lin­ers: once in De­cem­ber 2009, us­ing a bomb hid­den in a ter­ror­ist’s un­der­wear aboard a Detroit­bound jet; and a sec­ond plot last year to ship bombs dis­guised as printer car­tridges aboard a com­mer­cial cargo air­craft.

One of the con­tin­u­ing dan­gers of al Qaeda has been the group’s links to the Pak­istani TTP, which helped set up covert ter­ror­ist-train­ing camps in re­mote tribal ar­eas of Pak­istan.

In­tel­li­gence re­ports on these camps in­di­cate that al Qaeda over the past sev­eral years has re­cruited and trained Western­look­ing ji­hadists who are thought to more eas­ily pass through se­cu­rity screen­ing.


Next in line: Ay­man al-Zawahri (left), the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden, is likely to be the suc­ces­sor of the al Qaeda leader, an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said, but he “is not pop­u­lar within cer tain cir­cles of the group.”

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