WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials believe al-Qaida will have a hard time recovering from the death of its murderous leader, Osama bin Laden.
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 cellphones to avoid U.S. 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.
Bin Laden's death, by an American bullet to the head in a raid on his fortified Pakistani hideout early Monday, came 15 years after he declared war on the United States and nearly a decade after he carried out the worst attacks on U.S. soil. 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 U.S. 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 by the time U.S. commandoes eliminated him, counterterrorism experts say.
Today, the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. is now considered to be the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, far from al-Qaida's core in Pakistan. The Yemen branch almost took down a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and nearly detonated explosives aboard two U.S. cargo planes last fall. Those operations were carried out without any direct involvement from bin Laden.
Al-Qaida's leadership in Yemen has 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 U.S. 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.
Bin Laden was more of a symbol than anything else, said Qaribut Ustad Saeed, a long-time member of the Hezb-e-Islami rebel group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the U.S. has labeled a terrorist. Saeed is currently a member of the Afghan High Peace Council set up to try to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban. Bin Laden's loss will be an inspirational one, rather than an operational one, he said.
"Osama bin Laden became a symbol and inspiration for the young Muslim extremists," he said. But the group has expanded into a worldwide movement that is now bigger than bin Laden," he said.
Even if the U.S. manages to find and kill al-Zawahri, whose last-known sighting was in Peshawar in 2003, it won't mean the end of al-Qaida. Like Hamas and Hezbollah who have seen their leaders 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.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.