A year after bin Laden's death, al-Qaida 'far from defeated'
WASHINGTON – The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy commandos a year ago was a setback to al-Qaida, but the Islamic terror organization remains a potent threat around the world, intelligence experts say.
"It's on the defensive, but it's far from defeated," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
The raid by SEALs removed America's No. 1 fugitive and cracked the mythic status he held among followers for eluding the reach of a world superpower. Bin Laden had been hiding for years in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when a team of SEALs arrived by helicopter and killed him May 2, 2011.
Bin Laden was the founder and spiritual leader of al-Qaida and orchestrated not only the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, but also other attacks. Yet the principal strength of al-Qaida is that it is designed to operate without a central leader, experts say.
Bin Laden stitched together local and regional Muslim militant groups worldwide and encouraged them to act on their own initiative, analysts say.
"He created an organization and developed it," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"I don't think his death fundamentally affects the future of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Gerecht said. "It was a successful spawning."
In the past year, terrorist groups with ties to al-Qaida affiliates have established safe havens in eastern Afghanistan and carried out attacks against the capital of Kabul, according to the Afghan government. Al-Qaida jihadists are insinuating themselves into many conflicts in parts of Africa, the U.S. Africa Command said.
Al-Qaida is blamed for increasing the bombings in Iraq and has gained strength in southern Yemen, where it has been holding off government troops and is being targeted by U.S. drone strikes.
Al-Qaida-linked terror plots continued in the years that bin Laden was in hiding and not believed to be in direct contact with plotters. Many were disrupted by foreign and domestic intelligence agencies. Police in New York have broken up several attempted al-Qaida plots, including terrorists who tried to bomb Times Square and synagogues.
"He built affiliates," said Rick Nelson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The CIA is continuing to comb through the intelligence gathered at his Pakistani compound, where American commandos flew off with hard drives, documents and DVDs. Analysts say most of the intelligence gathered at his home will contribute to an understanding of how the organization operated but would probably not include "actionable" intelligence, since much of it was dated.
It provides a "historical portrait of al-Qaida over the years," Riedel said.
The United States has achieved significant successes since the raid, notably the drone strike that killed American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki in September in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki was an English speaker who produced a stream of propaganda aimed at promoting al-Qaida globally. He had exchanged e-mails with the U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at the Fort Hood military post in Texas.
He was also an operational planner linked to the Christmas Day "underwear bomber" in 2009 who tried to blow up a flight as it was landing in Detroit.
The al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is considered among the most dangerous and threatening to the United States. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan called it "the most active operational franchise" in the world.
Even so, Brennan said Sunday on ABC's This Week that bin Laden's death "made a tremendous difference. It's taken away the founding leader of that organization who was … a symbol of al-Qaida's sort of murderous agenda worldwide."
Brennan said that although numerous gains have been made against al-Qaida since bin Laden's death, "I don't look at it as a victory. I think … we have to destroy the organization. We have to take all of their operatives, their leaders, their training camps, take away their safe havens. And we're not going to rest."
U.S. officials have grown more concerned with Yemen as a spawning ground for terrorism in the wake of political turmoil that led to the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been a U.S. ally in fighting extremism in his country.
U.S drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have eliminated many militant leaders, experts said. Riedel said the strikes are putting al-Qaida "under enormous pressure."
Despite the toll from drones, disparate jihadist movements in Pakistan have survived and in some cases cooperate in attacks outside their borders. Groups such as the Haqqani network, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba have unleashed waves of violence against Pakistanis, Afghans and in India against Hindus and Jews.
Ultimately, al-Qaida's future may be determined more by popular revolts across the Arab world then by the loss of bin Laden, analysts said. Al-Qaida did not trigger the revolts but has voiced support for them. Now that dictatorships have been ousted in Muslim nations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the world waits to see what regimes will emerge.
"The great Arab revolt will have far greater impact on the future of jihadism than the death of bin Laden," Gerecht said.