One year after bin Laden's death, what is next for al-Qa'ida?

The network bin Laden led may be fragmented -- but it has not been eliminated. Patrick Cockburn analyses the power it can still wield

A year after Osama bin Laden was killed, how relevant is al-Qa'ida? In the decade since 9/11, bin Laden was always a symbol rather than an operational commander. His death did not do much to disrupt the group as an organisation. Occasional recordings of his voice over the years contained no new ideas and were primarily a way for al-Qa'ida to show that he was still alive.

Yet his death was very important, less because of its impact on al-Qa'ida than because of bin Laden's unique position in American demonology. It is difficult to think of anybody else with the same Satanic status.

President Barack Obama trumpets as one of his main achievements his administration's success in tracking down bin Laden and eliminating him. With him dead, it became easier for the White House to proceed with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, where a few hundred al-Qa'ida fighters was used to justify the presence of 90,000 US soldiers.

The shock to Americans of the 9/11 attacks may be diminishing, but it is still there. As a result, any act by al-Qa'ida will go on having an impact out of all proportion to its size.

No US administration can afford to be seen as derelict in pursuing al-Qa'ida whenever it shows the slightest signs of life. Few Americans pay attention to the turmoil in Yemen, but any stirring there by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attracts immediate official and media attention.

Aside from the killing of bin Laden, have the Arab Spring uprisings and protests over the past year knocked away one of al-Qa'ida's main ideological justifications? This was that dictatorships in the Muslim world could not be peacefully overthrown and the priority was to attack the US as their sponsor.

In 1998, claiming that the US had declared war on God and his messenger, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian second-in-command, called for the murder of Americans anywhere in the world as the "individual duty for every Muslim". This made limited impact at the time, but did resonate in the Muslim world after President George W Bush intervened militarily in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.


It is a bit glib to imagine al-Qa'ida becoming a back number in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamic and secular opponents combined their efforts to overthrow police states. But the belief that Islamic fundamentalism is finished may be exaggerated.

First, al-Qa'ida was always a small minority and was never planning to run for election. It will not go out of business because there are other effective methods of agitation. The Israeli conflict with the Palestinians festers and may soon explode. The political temperature of the whole region is rising.

Just because tightly run police states have collapsed across the region, the news is not bad for al-Qa'ida. Whatever happens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria over the next year, the states there will be weaker than before.


There are two other reasons why al-Qa'ida has survived the death of bin Laden and other leaders over the past year. US security officials speak of it as if it was structured like the Pentagon, with ranking officers whose killing by drones or death squads would disrupt the organisation.

It was always much more ramshackle than this. Few of the al-Qa'ida militants killed over the last year are irreplaceable, an exception being perhaps Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

A further reason is that its most powerful elements have always been franchisees not under the control of any core group. This was true of al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which, starting in 2003, became a lethally effective organisation in Iraq until much of the Sunni community turned against it.

But al-Qa'ida in Meso-potamia was always distinct from the core group of leaders around bin Laden. From the beginning, it focussed on a sectarian war against the Shia. For all their ferocity, al-Qa'ida suicide bombers rarely attacked US troops.

Similarly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, where the core of al-Qa'ida is supposedly based, there are plenty of people who have experience in guerrilla warfare. Hatred of foreigners and infidels of all sorts is a Pashtun tradition. But the local Pakistani Taliban, periodic allies of al-Qa'ida, are involved in their own struggles and are closely monitored by Pakistani and foreign intelligence services.

Weakened though it may be, al-Qa'ida will not fade from the headlines. This is partly because headline writers have got used to its existence as a universal bogeyman. The "war against al-Qa'ida" has also produced self-declared experts, think-tanks, intelligence officers and army generals who all have budgets to defend. They are never likely to declare the al-Qa'ida threat over, while emphasising, as one counter-terrorism expert said, that "we've made progress towards defeating al-Qa'ida the organisation".

US counter-terrorism and intelligence officers say that al-Qa'ida could never again carry out an onslaught as devastating as 9/11. They may be right. On the other hand, the very length of time it took for the US to find bin Laden and his family may show that their own level of competence, in contrast to their numbers and budgets, has not improved much since the World Trade Centre was destroyed.