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Filling the bin Laden gap

May 2, 2012

With the death of Osama bin Laden last May, the terrorist organization al Qaeda not only lost its head, but has also experienced structural change. Today, al Qaeda offshoots and lone jihadists pose the largest danger.


When Osama bin Laden, the then most-wanted man in the world, was killed in a covert US operation in the early morning of May 2 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the terror network al Qaeda lost their number-one man. The organization had changed well before. Today the danger is posed by individuals and branches of al Qaeda.

He died in a 40-minute exchange of fire between his bodyguards and US special units, who in the early morning hours of May 2 landed with their helicopters near his hiding place in the villa district of the garrison town of Abbottabad. This is where the most-wanted terrorist kept the world in suspense with his repeated threats - though his influence had subsided.

"He kept himself locked up in his isolated house in Abbottabad because he was very worried about his security. So al Qaeda's symbolic figure disappeared but in terms of operations - he had long not had any influence on plotting terrorist activity,” terrorism specialist Rolf Tophoven told DW.

After 9/11 bin Laden became a wanted man with nowhere to hide. For the terrorist group, the rich Saudi funder of yore had become a high risk - and an expensive one at that.

Right after his death, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani Taliban expert, wrote in the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung that "hundreds of wannabe jihadists will grieve today and will sacrifice their lives to avenge bin Laden's death." But even for Islamists, his death was not really what they had had in mind in terms of martyrdom. And the mobilization effect that Rashid and others had feared bin Laden's death would unleash has been very small, if at all.

Bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad
Bin Laden had been hiding in Pakistan for yearsImage: Reuters

Al Qaeda loses its head

Guido Steinberg, an advisor on international terrorism, said the death of bin Laden was pivotal because "what has changed was that an important leader was taken out and al Qaeda has not been able to find anyone with his charisma to replace him."

It is noticeable that the organization is now for the most part lacking identifiable top leaders. Al Qaeda had a new number-one: Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian doctor had been bin Laden's acting deputy from as early as the1990s and before his death he was considered to be the strategic brain behind the network. But what lacked was bin Laden's charisma.

"Osama bin Laden had a personality that was able to attract many young men in the Arabic world and also in the West and South Asia. Ayman al-Zawahiri is not inspiring. He is respected but he is not loved like bin Laden was," said Steinberg.

Ayman al-Zawahiri
Ayman al-Zawahiri became al Qaeda's new number-oneImage: dapd

The new leader also created a shift in the network's balance of power.

"Zawahiri is seen as a representative of the influential Egyptian faction, and other groups, like al Qaeda in Maghreb, distrust that faction."

Abu Yahya al-Libi is the network's number-two. Al-Libi is considered to be the organization's religious mastermind. In the year 2002, he was jailed at the American military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, but was released three years later with a number of others. Aside from an internet message in connection with the arming of Libyan rebels, he has kept a low profile in the past year.

Jihad 'hotspots'

Terrorism experts presume that the organization is worried about its safety and that may be why they want to keep rows over leadership under cover. Steinberg mentioned a number of leaders in the organization that are under house arrest in Iran but who have had a "little bit more room to breathe" since 2009.

"For the next six months and also in the coming years, it will be very important to see how al Qaeda's 'Iranian leadership' can take up a more significant role," Steinberg said.

Another effect the death of bin Laden has had on the organization is that new jihadist hubs have emerged. Aside from Pakistan's North and South Waziristan near the Afghan border, where there thought to be a great number of al Qaeda's core members, terrorism expert Rolf Tophoven said the organization could still be traced back to "Iraq, where there are also al Qaeda groups."

He said that al Qaeda's new "hotspot" was the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen, where armed Islamists were taking advantage of the political unrest and engaging the country's security forces in combat for months. The militants even managed to gain temporary control of entire areas in the country's south.

Al Qaeda shoot offs

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, other Islamist terrorist organizations such as Nigeria's Boko Haram and the Somalian al-Shabab, have been pushing their way into the spotlight. Boko Haram is active in Nigeria and in the Sahel and is considered to be a radical Islamist sect whose main goal is to impose Sharia law in the multiethnic country of over 160 people. The group has been blamed for the killing of hundreds of Christians in Nigeria.

Al-Shabab has control of parts of Somalia and has confessed to a number of large bomb attacks in Somalia as well as in other African countries. IntelCenter, a US company which specializes in the analysis of Islamist websites, reported in February that Islamist groups were merging with al Qaeda.

Al-Shabab militants
Al-Shabab controls parts of SomaliaImage: dapd

"It has been proven that they have contact with al Qaeda offshoots, especially ones in Yemen and Algeria. Nonetheless, organizations like al-Shabab and Boko Haram don't necessarily act on al Qaeda orders," Steinberg explained, adding that the organizations had their own national agendas, possibly made them more dangerous, and perhaps increased their popularity.

Lone nuts

A new kind of Islamist terrorist group has emerged in Europe. Mohamed Merah, who was killed in Toulouse in March, was a self-professed Islamic warrior (a mujahid). He said he was close to al Qaeda. Before police charged into his apartment and killed him, Merah had shot and killed seven people three days earlier, including three children in front of a Jewish school.

Terrorist experts put Arid U., who in February was sentenced to life in prison by a German court after killing two US soldiers at the Frankfurt Airport in February 2011, in the same group as the Toulouse extremist. While al Qaeda's core command were substantially weakened through ISAF efforts and US drone attacks, Tophoven said a whole new problem was emerging in Europe: "People who become fanaticized and radicalized jihadists - partly through internet propaganda - and carry out attacks on their own, with no command or direction from a terrorist cell."

Arid U.
Arid U. will spend his life in prisonImage: dapd

Experts estimate there are a total of around 400 such jihadists in EU countries and the majority, according to terrorism expert Gilles de Kerchove, are thought to be in Germany, France, Great Britain and Belgium.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams

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