Bin Laden's Death, One Year On: Has the Threat Receded?

Osama Bin Laden's death has only marginally diminished the threat from Al-Qa'ida: underscoring the symbolic relevance, rather than the strategic significance of his demise. The challenge emanates from dispersed, unconnected networks and a pernicious ideology which - though marginalised in the Arab Spring - still has potency in certain dispossessed quarters.

By Valentina Soria for

The jihadi threat has arguably evolved in recent years, but this has not been dictated as much by Bin Laden's elimination as by the numerous 'targeted assassinations' which have managed to remove other key operational figures within the organisation.  This is something Bin Laden himself had been increasingly worried about during the last few years of his existence.

Since embarking on its counter-terrorism campaign of surgical strikes, the Obama administration has reportedly carried out over 270 drone attacks in places like Pakistan, Yemen and more recently Somalia, killing over thirty top Al-Qa'ida' leaders - roughly a third of them since the Abbottabad raid in May 2011. The rest are more concerned with remaining alive than being able to exert direct strategic control over loosely connected affiliates in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, as well as self-styled cells and lone individuals across Europe and the US. Were he still alive, Bin Laden would perhaps have grown even more frustrated at the current inability of Al-Qa'ida-core to instruct - and provide - operational direction to some of its cells for the successful execution of spectacular or sophisticated attacks on the scale of 9/11, 7/7 or the Madrid bombing.

In this regard, it is worth pointing out that, even though the trend towards 'lone wolf'-style terrorist attacks began to emerge from 2009/2010, such methodology had not in fact been officially endorsed by Al-Qa'ida-core while its founder was still alive. Instead, it was Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - through the inflammatory sermons if its leader, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and its online propaganda magazine, Inspire - which first began to encourage lone, radicalised individuals to take on the initiative and try to launch attacks in their home countries, autonomously, if not randomly.

Yet in June 2011, just a month after Bin Laden's demise, a video was released in which the new Al-Qa'ida leader, Aiman Al-Zawahiri, officially promoted such strategy, by glorifying, inciting and providing religious justification for individual acts of terrorism.[1] Such shift may have resulted from a clear acknowledgment by Al-Qa'ida's top leadership of the chronic state of weakness and operational paralysis to which the core group had been consigned. It also highlights Al-Zawahiri's desire to point to a new strategic direction that Al-Qa'ida would embrace under his leadership.

Al-Qa'ida's Loss of Operational Control and Its Evolution into a Movement

Traditionally Al-Qa'ida-core had aimed at maintaining a certain degree of operational control over terrorist cells; this is proved, for instance, by the fact that most of the major terrorist plots disrupted in the UK before 2010 included in their cells one or more individuals who had attended terrorist training camps, particularly those based in Pakistan. This made it possible for Al-Qa'ida's leaders - and Bin Laden himself - to remain informed and aware of what would be pursued and attempted in the organisation's name.

In the last few years, however, the sustained pace of effective counter-terrorism operations aimed at eradicating Al-Qa'ida-core from the ungoverned space along the Afghan-Pakistan border has meant that travelling to the region to get terrorist training - and come into contact with Al-Qa'ida figures - has become extremely challenging and risky. Those who are still determined to make it increasingly tend to stay for a very limited period of time - a trend that Western security agencies are now characterising as the 'fast turnaround' of would be militants in Pakistan, capable of obtaining some form of training quickly enough to avoid detection before returning to their country of origin, ready to carry out attacks. For the majority, though, the logistical difficulties associated with reaching that traditional terrorist hub are such as to easily deter them from even trying in the first place. Partly for this reason, Al Zawahiri himself has thus discouraged Western volunteers from travelling to the Af-Pak region,[2] an approach that Bin Laden would unlikely have endorsed.

Yet, the easy availability of propaganda, training and bomb-making material online providing basic, if not rudimentary, technical and tactical advice, means that home-grown cells and radicalised individuals no longer require direct strategic guidance and instructions to 'activate' themselves. According to Europol, in 2011 there was an increase in the number of arrested individuals across Europe who were not linked to any known religiously-motivated terrorist organisation.[3] Nevertheless, home-grown networks, lone actors, as well as individuals returning from conflict zones, were - and are still - viewed as the main security concern. Also interestingly, would-be terrorists are now establishing connections that go across - and indeed ignore - specific ethnic lines.[4]

Rather, it is the common ideology of global jihad which is bringing them together, providing a shared justification for pursuing their terrorist activity. As a result of these factors, the threat - despite being less sophisticated in tradecraft and tactical expertise - has become more dispersed and 'autonomous'.  The main implication of such leaderless jihad is that a traditional decapitation strategy can only be partially effective, as it contributes little to eliminate the ideology underpinning it.

Diversification and Local Adaptation of the 'Al-Qa'ida model'

At the same time, alternative destinations for getting terrorist training and militant experience have emerged in various countries in the Middle East and Africa, where some of Al-Qa'ida's affiliates have recently grown in operational capacity, while still remaining locally focused in their strategic outlook.

To some extent, this has contributed to a further fragmentation of the threat, with such groups committed to pursue their specific agenda while embracing the ideology of jihadism exemplified and championed by Al-Qa'ida. From this perspective, therefore, Al-Qa'ida as a movement is still far from defeated; in aggregate, attacks by Al-Qa'ida affiliates have increased in the last few years. Since Bin Laden's death, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq alone has conducted more than 200 attacks, killing over a thousand people.[5]

Yet, rather than aiming to become truly international terrorist organisations, such groups are still content with achieving extreme Islamist goals on  a local, rather than, a  global scale.

Only AQAP in Yemen has so far proved to have both the intention and the capability to conduct terrorist attacks against the West. Similarly to Bin Laden's elimination, the killing of Al Awlaki carried a huge symbolic value but did not represent in itself a fatal blow for the group. The Arab Spring, which brought to the departure of President Saleh also posed a challenge for the terrorist group, unable to play any significant role in the revolution that affected the country. Yet, the chaos that ensued  subsequently enabling them to reorganise and take control of the much of the country's south.[6] With key operational figures still at large, AQAP may continue to pose a significant direct threat to Western interests and security in the future. Moreover, the likes of Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al-Qa'ida in Mali and in Iraq could all provide would-be terrorists with the militant experience and the network of connections needed to execute future attacks on Western soil under the 'Al-Qa'ida brand'.[7]

The political value of Bin Laden's demise is nonetheless greatly significant. It has arguably provided the Obama administration with the necessary justification for ending the US military campaign in Afghanistan. In this regard, there is no doubting the symbolism attached to President Obama's impromptu visit to the country to mark the anniversary. It resulted in the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement - aimed at setting the terms of the future US commitment in Afghanistan following the troop withdrawal next year.

With a combined cost of $1.28 trillion,[8] perhaps the most compelling lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military interventions will hardly represent a viable, let alone the most effective, counter-terrorism solution in the future. Ultimately, Bin Laden's lasting legacy, his ideology, has to be delegitimised - something that the West can contribute to, but not take charge of.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] TE-SAT 2012. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Europol, 2012, p.17

[2] TE-SAT 2012. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, op.cit., p.18

[3] Ibid., p.16

[4] Ibid.

[5] Seth G. Jones, ' Al Qaeda is Far From Defeated, Wall Street Journal, 29 April 2012

[6] 'Al Qaeda Attack on a Checkpoint in Yemen Kills 12; Troops Kidnapped', Al Arabiya News, 14 April 2012

[7] Valentina Soria 'Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa', RUSI UK Terrorism Analysis, Issue 2, April 2012

[8] ' Weaker Al Qaeda Still Plots Payback for US Raid', op.cit.


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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