Al-Qaeda suffered a massive setback when US forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. The death of bin Laden was a huge blow to the al-Qaeda core group and represented the most significant counter-terrorism success for the United States to date. Although a new leadership structure for al-Qaeda has already emerged, with Ayman Zawahiri at the helm, bin Laden’s ability to inspire and fund individuals and affiliated groups will not be easily replaced.
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda’s ideology and threat remains, with intelligence agencies warning the movement will want to prove it remains operational by launching attacks to avenge bin Laden’s killing. Indeed, a communiqué issued by al-Qaeda’s General Command following bin Laden’s death vowed it would continue to target the United States and its allies. Analysts say Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to retaliatory attacks as al-Qaeda militants look to exploit the tensions in the country. This was seemingly confirmed when insurgents launched a highly sophisticated attack on a naval air force base in Karachi on May 22, 2011, killing 16 people and raising concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear installations.
Other individuals and autonomous groups aligned to the aims of al-Qaeda are also a dangerous threat, with several movements in Africa, Asia and the Middle East targeting Western interests. These regional affiliates, such as AQAP in Yemen, operate with a large degree of devolution and autonomy and have now become a significant threat to the Western world. Ineffective local counter-terrorism policies also allow these groups to operate in relative security.
AQAP was formed in January 2009 from a merger of al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. It originally carried out attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, including an attempt to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Security Minister in August 2009, but has since expanded operations to target Western interests. AQAP was responsible for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on December 25, 2009, and, more recently, the cargo plane bomb plot that aimed to detonate two explosive-laden packages on cargo planes bound for the United States. In November 2010, the group announced its ‘Operation Hemorrhage’ strategy that called for a large number of inexpensive, small-scale attacks against US interests.
The heightened risk from AQAP seemed to be confirmed in February 2011 when National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC ) Director Michael Leiter said the group, with American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as its leader, could now be the most significant risk to the US homeland. Intelligence officials indicate that the individuals who carried out the shootings at Fort Hood military installation in Texas and the attempted Times Square car bomb attack were inspired by al-Awlaki.
Al-Qaeda’s greatest success since 2001 has been to galvanize other movements and individuals that are aligned to their cause. Although the core al-Qaeda group does not finance or control these movements, it can still inspire operations by others, and this is likely to continue in the post-bin Laden world.