The United States and its allies braced Monday for possible retaliation from al Qaeda after U.S. forces killed its leader, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan and his supporters vowed revenge.
Counterterrorism experts said the killing might herald a shift in the balance of power among the affiliates that make up the al Qaeda network, with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based offshoot that U.S. officials believe is the most dangerous, assuming more of a leadership role.
“Though bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda is not,” CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a statement. “The terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge him, and we must - and will - remain vigilant and resolute.”
Bin Laden for many years had little day-to-day involvement in al Qaeda, and his death likely will be a symbolic blow to the organization, albeit a destructive one, as unflattering details emerge about his life in hiding and if uncertainty grows about who will succeed him.
The men with a more operational role in al Qaeda Central in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Abu Yahya al-Libi and Ayman al-Zawahiri - the latter widely believed to be bin Laden’s designated successor - will be under “enormous pressure” as U.S. forces seek to leverage the intelligence they found in the raid and follow up on their success, former State Department counterterrorism official William McCants told The Washington Times.
The additional pressure might make it hard for Mr. al-Zawahiri to publicly respond to the killing, leaving a vacuum, Mr. McCants said.
“AQAP looks much better positioned to step up and fill that vacuum - providing operational leadership and strategic guidance” for the decapitated global terror movement, he said.
In Yemen, a member of AQAP called bin Laden’s death a “catastrophe,” and other scholars suggested there is no real replacement for him.
“There’s no substitute for Osama,” Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation said.
Even Anwar al-Awlaki, an English-speaking cleric who has become the Internet-friendly face of Islamic extremism, “doesn’t have half the stature bin Laden did,” Mr. Bergen said.
“He’s never fought in a war. Next to Osama, he’s a dwarf. … They all are,” he said of other extremist leaders.
Both Mr. Bergen and Mr. McCants agreed that Mr. al-Zawahiri likely would be a poor leader for al Qaeda. “He is a terrible manager, not well-regarded or well-liked even by his own followers,” Mr. Bergen said.
Both scholars said they expect that some kind of video statement, specially recorded by bin Laden for use in the event of his death, would be released soon.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, an extremist group closely linked to al Qaeda, vowed revenge on U.S. and Pakistani forces. “If he has been martyred, we will avenge his death,” Ehsanullah Ehsan told reporters.
But there appeared to be some confusion among the group’s members, and another spokesman claimed that bin Laden was alive and well, according to Raheel Khan, bureau chief for Radio Free Europe’s Pashto-language service, Radio Mashaal.