The 'uncertain' future of al Qaeda

Now that Osama bin Laden is gone, will his terrorist network break apart — or lash out in revenge?

Members of the suspected terrorist organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa weep during a funeral prayer for Osama bin Laden: Some say al Qaeda has merely suffered a temporary setback with the death of it
(Image credit: REUTERS/Athar Hussain)

The death of Osama bin Laden is unquestionably a major blow to al Qaeda. But intelligence officials warn that while the terrorist network faces an "uncertain future," the danger of fresh attacks is far from over. Al Qaeda has fractured into many dangerous parts since 9/11, each with its own leader determined to kill Americans. What happens to al Qaeda now that its founder is dead?

Al Qaeda as we knew it died with bin Laden: "Al Qaeda Central will continue, zombie-like, to wreak havoc, but it will never be the same," said Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, as quoted by Reuters. Bin Laden was the organization's driving force, so in many ways it died with him. Al Qaeda's sympathizers will no doubt try to avenge bin Laden's death, but the people actually associated with him will be lucky to stay alive, now that the U.S. possesses bin Laden's most secret documents.

"Analysis: Core Qaeda priority is survival, not succession"

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The terror network will replace bin Laden and carry on: No question, "the loss of a symbolic, semi-charismatic leader whose own survival burnished his legend is significant," says Steve Coll at The New Yorker. But Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2, will probably simply pick up where his boss left off. The bottom line is that before the raid the U.S. had 40 "high-value targets at the top of the wanted-list system." Now it has 39.

"Notes on the death of Osama bin Laden"

Al Qaeda may emerge stronger than ever: "Decapitation alone rarely brings about the ruin of terrorist groups," says Jenna Jordan at the Chicago Tribune. Look at Hamas. Israel has killed many of its leaders over the years, and the Palestian Islamists are stronger than ever. "Bin Laden's death may temporality destabilize al Qaeda's core in Pakistan," but its dangerous and independent affiliates, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will continue as if nothing happened.

"Can al Qaeda survive this?"

No, this nudges al Qaeda closer to irrelevancy: "The death of bin Laden will not be the end of al Qaeda," says H.D.S. Greenway in The Boston Globe. Militant Islam has spread, like a cancer, too broadly to go away so easily. But the death of a symbol as important as bin Laden "has enormous value, especially coming at the moment that al Qaeda's main message, that change can only come through Islamic terrorism, is being undercut by the Arab Spring."

"Will al Qaeda survive?"

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