The death of Osama bin Laden on May 2 in Abbottabad, Pakistan is undoubtedly a major setback for al-Qaeda and a significant achievement for the United States and its allies. In recent days, al-Qaeda purportedly has released several statements, including a lengthy two-part video, but its message since bin Laden’s killing remains confused. While the first statements released by the group and its affiliates focused on praising bin Laden and vowing new attacks, the most recent video focuses instead on "one-man" terrorist attacks in the West, featuring mostly recycled footage mixed in with some new segments from American Adam Gadahn and Libyan al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi.
While spurring followers to commit "lone wolf" attacks is not new for al-Qaeda, the video’s message is a far cry from sweeping past statements about change and revolution. Al-Qaeda has been driven off-message by bin Laden’s death, as well as by the "Arab Spring" uprisings, which compounded years of decline brought on by people growing fed up with al-Qaeda’s violent agenda. But whether these shocks to the organization are temporary or whether they presage the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is a critical question. In our assessment, Al-Qaeda’s future depends on three factors.
First, al-Qaeda’s ability to resolve the issue of its leadership succession expeditiously and to the satisfaction of all or most of its key players will be critical in determining its viability as a global presence with influence on far-flung affiliates from Algeria to Iraq. The news of Egyptian Saif al-Adel’s appointment as the interim al-Qaeda chief is making the rounds, but it is not clear yet who appointed him to the job, whether he claims the title himself or if this is truly an organizational decision, though reports indicate that he was chosen by a small group of leaders based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. If any controversy arises within al-Qaeda circles about his stature and credentials, then the chances of the organization withering away into fragments shall increase considerably.
Apparently, none of the likely challengers for the successor’s spot, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi and others, can step into bin Laden’s shoes at this moment. Therefore, al-Adel or anyone who is confirmed as leader will almost certainly have to carry out a series of spectacular terrorist acts to prove his credentials and get al-Qaeda back in the game. That is, no doubt, a tall order. But given the resilience of the organization over the years, and despite an aggressive counter-terrorism effort from the United States and its allies around the world, al-Qaeda should not be totally written off. But if the new leader, when he is announced, fails to quickly receive support and public declarations of loyalty from al-Qaeda affiliates and is not able to carry out big attacks, then al-Qaeda may have suffered a near-death blow.
Second, the response of the counter terrorism coalition in South Asia — that is, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Pakistan and Afghanistan — is also going to have a significant impact on al-Qaeda’s fate. If ISAF fragments, and if the U.S. and Pakistan become even more distrustful of each other in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, this will provide al-Qaeda with an opportunity to survive the jolt of its leader’s death. Pressure must be relentlessly applied on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, giving it no respite or time to recover. If, however, the counterterrorism coalition sticks together, leading to the arrests or killing of more al-Qaeda leaders as well as a viable exit strategy from Afghanistan that allows the Afghan government to resist pressure from terrorist group, the al-Qaeda network could also be seriously debilitated. Already, reports indicate that cooperation between Pakistan and the United States may have contributed to the death of al-Qaeda’s operational leader in Pakistan, Ilyas Kashmiri, an encouraging sign after a rancorous month between Pakistan and the United States.
Third, whether al-Qaeda’s ideology resonates with segments of the world’s Muslim populations will have a critical bearing on the organization’s ultimate fate. Recent political developments in Egypt, Tunisia and across the Middle East have exposed the bankruptcy of al-Qaeda’s ideas as a means of challenging dictatorships in Muslim countries. To be sure, it would be premature to say that the ideology of bringing change through terrorism is down for the count. Much will depend in the coming months and years on the extent to which the changes heralded by the "Arab Spring" improve the lot of common Arabs in terms of governance and economic prospects. If there are no improvements, al-Qaeda will again likely be able to paint the changes as cosmetic and agitate for its own version of "real change."
The bottom line is that until the battle is over and won, the counterterrorism coalition should remain united, improve local capacity, and fully concentrate on beating the terrorist threat, for good.
Tariq Parvez, a leading expert on terrorism, is the former director general of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency and led Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority. Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam professor at Columbia University and author of the Asia Society’s recently published "Pakistan 2020: A Vision for Building a Better Future."