Bin Laden's death isn't likely to mark end of al Qaida

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

CAIRO — Political analysts who closely monitor Islamist militant groups said Monday that the circumstances of Osama bin Laden's death — far from the battlefield in a million-dollar mansion — support what they've claimed for years: that while bin Laden remained the spiritual figurehead for al Qaida, he was far removed from its daily operations.

That suggests, they said, that the impact of his death will be largely symbolic, and that al Qaida will remain a force in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and some parts of North Africa, where it's still active. Elsewhere, those who claim to be his followers will remain dangerous.

"The forces involved go far beyond al Qaida," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There're going to be extremist movements almost regardless of what happens to al Qaida. If it weakens, there will be new splinter groups that develop that will replace it."

Long before bin Laden's death, al Qaida had evolved into a mostly leaderless group loosely organized via the Internet with self-declared "members" acting independently around the globe. The bin Laden-inspired freelance militant is a model that could persist long after the leader's death.

"No message dies with the messenger," said Montasser el Zayat, an Islamist attorney in Cairo who once represented bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al Zawahri, and who wrote a book in Arabic called "Ayman Zawahri as I Knew Him."

"Bin Laden succeeded in turning al Qaida from a movement into an ideology that still pervades the minds of people all over the world," Zayat said.

That was clear in the hours after his death. While few openly mourned bin Laden, who's widely viewed as an aberration who distorted the tenets of Islam to suit his murderous goals, a handful of bin Laden's acolytes posted flowery online eulogies to the man they referred to as "the sheikh" or "the prince."

A spokesman for al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni offshoot of the terrorist group, was quoted as calling bin Laden's death "a catastrophe." An online message board mainly for Iraqi insurgents carried an unsigned statement that exhorted Muslims to "be proud of this man who said and did, who fought and was killed." Neither statement could be independently verified.

In Gaza, the Hamas leader and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the Reuters news agency that bin Laden's death was "a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the tactic of assassination, but added in a statement on its website that "we hope the elimination of bin Laden will help to remove one of the causes of conflict between the Muslim world and the West in general, and the U.S. in particular."

Bin Laden's relevance to the Arab world had been fading. The recent revolts that are remaking the region are the work of ordinary people, not Islamist militants.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of Muslim populations in six countries showed that bin Laden's highest support came from the Palestinian territories, and even there just 34 percent of those surveyed said they had confidence in bin Laden to "do the right thing in world affairs."

A quarter of Indonesian respondents said they had confidence in bin Laden; the figure was 22 percent for Egypt, 13 percent for Jordan, 3 percent for Turkey and 1 percent for Lebanon.

Results for Pakistan weren't available, Pew said, but confidence in bin Laden had plummeted there from 52 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in last year's survey.

"Killing bin Laden is the beginning of al Qaida's end. His death confirms that it was fading bit by bit, losing its charisma and effect on Muslim youth, losing the appeal of its rhetoric," said Hossam Tammam, a Cairo-based academic who specializes in Islamist movements.

Iraq's foreign minister said in a statement that he was "delighted" to hear of bin Laden's death; Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab countries likewise praised the operation as a victory for counter-terrorism efforts.

On a Yahoo message board, Arabic-speaking users debated bin Laden's legacy in heated exchanges.

A user with the handle Rafeeq, for example, praised bin Laden as a martyr who died defending his beliefs after a successful jihadist career in which he "fought for Islam to end the injustice of Western colonization, starting from Russia to the United States to Europe."

A user with the name Justice of Heaven shot back: "Hell and misfortune to you who corrupted the image of peaceful Islam. Americans made you and killed you and yet some naive people praise you."

Still, the flood of messages offered little support for the United States, criticizing it for molding bin Laden into a "bogeyman" while failing to respond to what they consider the root causes of radicalism: foreign occupation, poverty and authoritarian rule among them. And they noted the hundreds of civilians who'd been killed as "collateral damage" in the U.S. government's 10-year hunt for bin Laden.

Zayat said al Qaida would continue to find foot soldiers "as long as both Afghanistan and Iraq are occupied, as long as the United States keeps backing Israel, as long as the United States exploits the resources of other countries."

Analysts predicted that the al Qaida branch in Iraq, which is only informally linked to the bin Laden network, would continue to mount bombings and assassination attempts that have killed not only Americans, but also Shiite Muslim clerics as well as ordinary Iraqis caught in the violence. Aggressive U.S. and Iraqi military operations have pushed the insurgents into pockets outside cities they once terrorized, but sporadic bombings have continued in Baghdad and elsewhere, signaling a tenacious group of fighters poised to regroup once U.S. forces withdraw.

"Most of the operations of the Iraqi security forces are nothing more than reactions to the insurgent groups," said Muataz Abdulhameed, a security specialist at an independent research center in Baghdad.

In Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral homeland and the base of one of the world's most active al Qaida franchises, the leader's death dominated conversation.

"When I heard the news and saw people celebrating in New York and Washington, I was immediately happy," said Saif Talib al Zubayr, a Yemeni who's been participating in demonstrations to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Bin Laden has done little more than kill innocent people and dirty the name of Islam."

But Cordesman suggested the impact would be small in Yemen, where a Yemeni-American militant, Anwar al Awlaki, has become one of the most prominent young extremists.

"That group does not have long-standing ties to the senior leadership," Cordesman said. "It is a new group of young leaders that didn't work with bin Laden."

In Change Square in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, demonstrators were glued to televisions broadcasting the latest news on bin Laden's death.

"Killing bin Laden will not end terror," said Hazem Majid al Jadali, a protester. "Arabs, the United States and the European Union must get rid of (Libyan leader) Moammar Ghadafi, (Syrian President) Bashar Assad and Ali Abdullah Saleh, too, if we want to truly end terror."

(McClatchy special correspondent Baron reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Marisa Taylor in Washington and special correspondents Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and Mohannad Sabry in Cairo contributed to this article.)

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