- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

What will happen to al-Qaeda when Osama bin Laden is removed from the scene? Will this post-binLaden al-Qaeda continue to be a worldwide threat to U.S. interests? With the removal of Saddam Hussein from the scene and the cocked trigger of al-Qaeda ready to fire at any moment, it may be prudent and valuable to open a debate on these questions. In fact, pro-al Qaeda Web sites have already begun to debate the first question.
At present, al Qaeda has an adequate, if dwindling, supply, of experienced mid-level operational commanders who can replace the commanders that the United States has captured or killed since September 11. However, the group has only one emir, or leader. Bin Laden is simply irreplaceable. There are some terrorist groups that reflect their founder so much that when the founder is removed, the group gradually deflates.
Bin Laden's removal from the scene will certainly accelerate the deterioration of al Qaeda's legitimacy and viability. The so-called number two man in al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, could take over the reigns of al Qaeda, but he would only be able to slow, not stop, this deterioration. Zawahiri does not have the charisma, war record, money and extensive financial connections of bin Laden. He would become a caretaker leader of al Qaeda. His goal would be to keep some semblance of a centralized structure intact until al Qaeda can figure out what it wants to mutate into, organizationally and ideologically, after bin-Laden. Without bin-Laden, al Qaeda will suffer an identity crisis.
Al Qaeda's deterioration and mutation began on September 11. The group simply underestimated the resolve and response of the United States and overestimated the support from the Arab street and the military capability of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. The speed of al Qaeda's deterioration has ebbed and flowed over the past 19 months, as the group lost Afghanistan, had to disperse its members, saw its finances frozen and disrupted and witnessed the arrests or deaths of several key operational leaders. September 11 has become al-Qaeda's "Waterloo."
As the group's credibility and operational capability slowly deteriorate, al Qaeda appears to be trying to mutate into an organizational and ideological form that can resist this deterioration. The only viable form that could possibly fend off this deterioration is for the group to decompose into small, autonomous, indigenous jihads. You see, bin Laden's major contribution to the history of terrorism has been his construction of an entity, al Qaeda, that translated the concept of global jihad into global action. It is the only terrorist group in history that has propagated a global message that it supported with attacks on a global battlefield.
Prior to al-Qaeda, the predominant Islamic terrorist template was the indigenous jihad. However, al Qaeda acted as a global jihadist clearinghouse, incubator, university and military academy. Bin Laden even consolidated and co-opted some of these indigenous jihads into his global jihad.
Global jihadists believe that the United States is the primary enemy of Islam and that the U.S. goal is to destroy Islam. They perceive U.S. influence and interference behind conflicts in the world involving Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, et. al. The global jihadists believe they must concentrate their attacks on the United States and that these attacks must be carried out on a global battlefield, including inside the United States. However, without bin Laden and a safe- haven country, the concept of global jihad will be difficult to perpetuate.
The threat that al-Qaeda poses to U.S. interests at home and abroad has slowly decreased since September 11. It has lost an important safe haven. Its finances have been harassed. Its experienced operational leaders have been killed or captured. Its command and control has been disrupted. Its communication system has been fragmented. Its two top leaders are in deep hiding and quasi-hibernation. Its capability to centrally train, experiment, plot and inspire has been removed. All of the above add up to an operationally damaged terrorist group whose global reach is shrinking.
It is correct to focus on removing bin-Laden from the scene. Al Qaeda is in an irreversible decline that will accelerate with bin Laden's absence. The degree of the slope of that decline may vary over the next several years, but the direction is clear. To keep al-Qaeda on that decline it is important to concentrate on two main tasks ahead: (1) prevent the group from finding a new territorial safe haven, and (2) attack the group's message and credibility as it attempts to energize a new generation of young militants.
Al Qaeda still has the capability to carry out several micro, and possibly one or two, macro attacks per year against soft U.S. targets. It may even possess a residual capability to carry out one mass casualty, indiscriminate attack in the United States. However, these would be bullets that once fired, could not be replaced. Al-Qaeda is having problems reloading, compliments of the FBI, NSA, DIA and CIA.

Dennis Pluchinsky is a contributing editor to the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and a U.S. government terrorism analyst. The opinions expressed are his own and in no way reflect the official views or policies of the U.S. government or the journal.

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