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Bin Laden anniversary

Günther Birkenstock / bkMay 2, 2013

Osama bin Laden, the founder and long-time leader of the Islamist terrorist organization al Qaeda, was killed two years ago by US soldiers. His worldwide terrorist network has changed a lot since then.

FILE - This April 1998 file photo shows exiled al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida's image was a top concern on Osama bin Laden's mind in the last months of his life. In letters captured in the U.S. raid that killed him, the terror leader complains that al-Qaida branches kill too many Muslim civilians, turning the public against them. He was angered the would-be Times Square bomber broke his U.S. citizenship oath not to harm the United States. "We do not want the mujahedeen to be accused of breaking an oath," bin Laden wrote. (AP Photo, File)
Osama bin LadenImage: AP

The name al Qaeda is synonymous with a number of terrorist attacks, both in the West and in the Arab world. The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 brought the group to the world's attention. Around 3,000 people were killed. The former head of the Islamist terror network, Osama Bin Laden, was hunted down in Pakistan and shot dead by US soldiers.

Now the group is split. Several Islamist groups in North Africa, the Middle East, and on the Arabian Peninsula occasionally use the name al Qaeda, but pursue their own aims.

Photo taken on September 22, 2012 shows members of the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab standing on after giving themselves up to forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (c) Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/GettyImages
Al Shabab is very active SomaliaImage: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Al Qaeda's headquarters are thought to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but experts believe the strength of this core has been reduced considerably.

Estimates hold that only 300-400 people make up the ideological center of al Qaeda. However, the groups outside of al Qaeda's center are thought to have gotten stronger.

Leadership weakened

Islamism researcher Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) believes that the death of Bin Laden has significantly weakened al-Qaeda, depriving it of a charismatic leader who stands above the arguments between individual factions. "The current leader, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, has always been controversial among many non-Egyptians within the organization."

But Zawahiri remains the supreme commander of the terrorist organization. The leaders of different branches of al-Qaeda are bound to him by oath. Zawahiri has also cultivated a small group of long-serving comrades, says journalist and al Qaeda expert Yassin Musharbash. "They present the image of al Qaeda to the world through videos and speeches," he told DW. "That sets the ideological direction."

Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri Photo:Al-Jazeera, File/AP/dapd
Ayman al-Zawahiri has emerged as the network's new leaderImage: dapd

Branches and allies

Apart from the headquarters in Pakistan, there are also official al Qaeda groups and movements in other countries, says Musharbash. "There are branches in Iraq, in North Africa, and on the Arab Peninsula. The al Shabab militia, which has made itself subject to al Qaeda, is very active in Somalia. But it is not the same as al Qaeda."

The terrorist group now led by Zawahiri is particularly well represented in Algeria, Mali, and Libya. And terrorist activity is increasing in Iraq, where there are thought to be 1,000 al Qaeda followers. Similarly, the Islamists have strengthened their position among the various rebel groups in Syria, fighting against the regime of President Bashar al Assad, says Musharbash. "In Syria, there is the al Nusra Front, probably the most important jihadist group at the moment."

But, as yet, the group's presence in Syria does not represent any threat to the outside world, the terrorism expert adds, though he warns that that could change if the Assad regime collapses. If that happens, Musharbash says the al Nusra Front could make good on its threat to install a mini-Emirate and attack Israel. "The group has publicly declared this aim several times."

Al Qaeda has branched out with regional operatives
Al Qaeda has branched out with regional operatives

Few members, many supporters

There are only vague estimates as to the total number of al Qaeda supporters in the world. Musharbash thinks that "there can't be more than 10,000 people in the world who would describe themselves as members of al-Qaeda." He puts the number as closer to 5,000.

But on top of that there is a large number of supporters and sympathetic groups willing to lend help. "There are al Qaeda supporters who are not members, but still militant," he says. "We see that in Libya, Tunisia, on the Sinai peninsula, and in Yemen - a kind of second ring around al Qaeda. They are groups who emphasize their local origin and stay independent."

Guido Steinberg of SWP believes that all of the al Qaeda groups decide on their strategy independently. But at the same time, actions are often planned by the al Qaeda headquarters, the Islam scholar says. "In 2010, a big, programmatic video was distributed in which almost all al Qaeda leaders with a rank and name appeared," Steinberg explains. "They said: you don't have to come to Pakistan anymore, you don't have to join the organization anymore. You can look in your own country to see how you can organize terrorist activity there."

Still dangerous

The number of al Qaeda attacks in western countries has gone down significantly thanks to the success of the US' anti-terror operations. That has led to the assumption that the danger of al Qaeda has been reduced. But in truth the opposite is likely the case.

Residents inspect a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb attack REUTERS/Ako Rasheed
More Muslims are killed by al Qaeda than non-MuslimsImage: Reuters

"Al-Qaeda is hundreds of times more active in the Islamic world than outside it," Mushabarash says. "There are studies that say al Qaeda kills eight-and-a-half times more Muslims than non-Muslims." The terrorist network has experienced something of a second wind because of the ever more complicated Arab Spring.

"One shouldn't underestimate al Qaeda," said Musharbash. "At decisive points, al Qaeda has always found ways to re-invent itself. And at the moment we are seeing that again."