The news of Osama bin Laden's death had hardly broken before pundits began debating what it meant for al Qaeda. The middle ground of opinion is that the terrorist network has suffered a meaningful setback.
Bin Laden is dominating the headlines - maybe for the last time
"Al Qaeda is dead." That was the bold pronouncement made by CNN and Time magazine terrorism expert Fareed Zakaria after an elite unit of US troops killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on Sunday.
Meanwhile, others, including Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, played down the death of the world's most wanted man as a symbolic gesture that would not cripple the activities of the terrorist network he founded.
Opinions diverge depending on whether analysts focus on bin Laden's operational significance or the importance of his charismatic leadership. And the lack of consensus underscores the fact that predicting the future is a risky endeavor.
"It's all speculation now since we don't know what will happen," Thomas Rid, a terrorism expert at the University of Constance in Germany and King's College in London, told Deutsche Welle. "I suspect that this is not the end of al Qaeda, but they've definitely been weakened, and not just because of Osama bin Laden's death."
"They haven't staged a major attack in a long time, the revolutions in the Arab world have achieved some of their core aims with al Qaeda nowhere to be seen, and the US-led campaign in Afghanistan is going better than many people thought," Rid continued. "And now bin Laden has been killed."
Bin Laden's death dominated news broadcasts around the globe, as details began to emerge on Monday. But media reports, in particular on television, rarely do justice to the complex and often ambiguous nature of al Qaeda and its followers.
To answer the question, "What does Bin Laden's death mean," it seems you first have to address the issue of: For whom?
Identification and anger
None of al Qaeda's other leaders have bin Laden's charisma
Rid says al-Qaeda supporters can be divided, roughly speaking, into two categories. The first consists of opportunists who are primarily concerned with local issues and think the network can be of help in achieving concrete aims.
The second is comprised of second- and- third-generation diaspora Muslims primarily in Europe who don't identify with the countries of their ancestors or the West, and who seek a sense of broader belonging.
Ridding the world of bin Laden is more likely to hurt al Qaeda's ability to attract support in the latter group.
"In the abstract sense, bin Laden's death makes it less likely that Muslims in Europe will identify with al Qaeda," Rid said. "But if something happens to anger Muslims, as something almost certainly will in the Middle East, for example, it will create new energy."
Khaleb Hroub is an Islamism expert and the director of the "Arab Media Project" at Cambridge University in England. He says bin Laden's death will reinforce the idea of global jihad as a fruitless endeavor.
"Osama bin Laden was a figure or inspiration and integration to his followers, and that was primarily because of his charisma," Hroub told Deutsche Welle. "His absence will reveal al Qaeda's lack of orientation and a clear agenda."
In other words, while anger and resentment are likely to remain prevalent among young Muslims, the aggression will no longer be channeled to the same extent by a charismatic leader.
Security has been increased around the world to prevent acts of revenge
Western governments and independent experts have cautioned that al Qaeda will probably try to strike back with acts of revenge for bin Laden's killing. But a full comeback by the terrorist network, analysts say, is unlikely.
"In the short and medium term, I expect a wave of new acts of violence," Hroub said. "But I think in the long term, terrorism will wane."
Rid says potential acts of violent retribution would be expressions of desperation by network members eager to show that jihad is still relevant. And he points out that the absence of bin Laden will deprive the network of its most potent PR figure.
"Media interest in al Qaeda is likely to subside, which is certainly a positive development," Rid said. "Every time a video or a tape-recorded message by bin Laden was released, it was front page news, and important political figures and even the White House would issue official reactions. That won't happen any more."
Announcements of al Qaeda's death may be exaggerated. Only time will tell whether the network will be able to stage a major act of terrorism - either in one of the many countries in the Arab world currently undergoing unrest, a nation like Indonesia with its Muslim majority or in a major urban area of the West.
But experts say that it's very unlikely that any one figure will emerge from the ranks of the network and command the world's attention as bin Laden did for nearly a decade.
And that almost surely damages al Qaeda's ability to recruit disoriented individuals in the West for their ideology of hatred.
Khaled Hroub was interviewed by DW’s Loay Mudhoon.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge