Al Qaeda has been on the run and in deterioration, unable to launch a spectacular attack like that of September 11 for quite some time now. With the death of Osama bin Laden, this demise will continue—and perhaps be expedited. Still, the threat of jihadist terrorism remains, namely in the short-term, and the American counter-terrorism community would be well-advised to maintain its vigilance in the coming months. The immediate reaction of Al Qaeda and its sympathizers to bin Laden’s death is sure to be one of shock and dismay, but it’s only a matter of time before those emotions give way to anger. And the irate have a tendency to lash out.
Al Qaeda was depreciating before bin Laden’s death. For nearly a decade, U.S. military operations have had its senior leadership in disarray. As drone strikes escalated under the Obama administration, the core of the Al Qaeda seemed to be more concerned about surviving the night than seizing the day. This, in part, explains why the organization was never able to re-group after September 11 to launch another major attack against the U.S. Even when Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, were able to release messages, they increasingly fell flat.
Of course, part of the problem is that Al Qaeda is the jihadist movement’s worst enemy: It’s difficult, after all, to claim that you are waging a war on behalf of Islam, when many of your victims are Muslims. Add to that the fact that the promise of a life under Taliban-like state regimes lacks appeal for most Muslims, and it’s no surprise that Al Qaeda was losing support in the Islamic world.
Of late, Al Qaeda affiliates like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have tried to take up the mantle. But the power projection of these so-called “franchises” has been confined to their regional fields of operation. Not to be misunderstood, they remain deadly. But their ability to strike the American homeland has been limited at best.
As I document in a study recently published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, terrorist attacks, including jihadist attacks, have been on the wane worldwide since 2007. In large part, this has been a by-product of Al Qaeda’s decline. Now, with bin Laden’s death, there is no reason to believe that this long-term trend will not continue.
That said, the U.S. and its allies are not out of the woods yet. Al Qaeda is more than a terrorist organization. It’s a movement. Decapitating Al Qaeda will not stop those who feel it is their duty to strike against the U.S. and its assets in the name of a bin Laden’s twisted version of Islam.
In the months ahead, Western intelligence and law enforcement officials would be prudent to keep an eye out for self-starters, especially extremist lone wolves, who feel it is their duty to seek retribution on behalf of bin Laden. There are certainly people out there who are willing to heed such a call, some right here inside our country. In just the past two years, Carlos Bledsoe killed a soldier in Little Rock; Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 people at Fort Hood; and Michael Finton, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, Faisal Shahzad, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, and Antonio Martinez all attempted to set off improvised explosive devices in various public places. All of these individuals were living here in the U.S. And all attempted to perpetrate violence in the name of the jihadist movement. As such, authorities should heighten, as opposed to lessen, homeland security measures in the short-term.
Fortunately, however, the means necessary to stage large-scale, mass-casualty attacks are just not readily available for terrorists seeking to stage them inside the U.S. (for more on the limited means available to terrorists, read here). And now, with the elimination of its charismatic, inspirational leader, the long-term prognosis for the jihadist movement, even if it experiences fits of invigoration after today’s events, just got bleaker. Osama bin Laden is dead. In time, Al Qaeda will be, too.
Louis Klarevas is member of the clinical faculty at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/Klarevas.
Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Lawrence F. Kaplan asks if we'll overestimate the importance of bin Laden's death; Heather Hurlburt on the reasons the U.S. was able to kill bin Laden; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Jonathan Kay on the emergence of conspiracy theories; Paul Berman on the symbolism of bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy; Sean Wilentz asks if bin Laden's demise will loosen the grip paranoid politics has on America; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.
TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.