By Brigitte L. Nacos
On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, the founder and head of Al Qaeda, was killed in a daring commando raid by the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six in his hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reveals in his just released book that President Obama’s green light for the SEAL mission was “one of the most courageous I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
When President Obama announced the result of the Special Operation Forces’ mission, many Americans hoped that the death of bin Laden would be the final nail in the coffin of an Al Qaeda organization already hard hit by relentless American counterterrorism efforts.
That was a rather reasonable expectation since one result of a terrorist organization’s decapitation can be its disintegration.
But what has happened in the nearly three years since bin Laden’s demise?
The President himself said during the 2012 campaign, including in one of the debates with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, that Al Qaeda in Pakistan had been decimated.
At the time, most of Al Qaeda Central’s leadership cast had been captured, killed, or was in hiding.
But bin Ladenism (or Al Qaedaism) has not lost its attraction.
Whether formally endorsed by the original Al Qaeda leadership or not, larger organizations, cells, and lone wolves with the same extremist ideology have grown in numbers and carried out lethal terrorist attacks in many parts of the world.
While it was hard enough to fight Al Qaeda Central, it is even more difficult to deal with a growing number of potent Al Qaeda affiliates or groups expressing allegiance to the original bin Laden organization.
Typically, these groups operate in failing states where governments do not control all regions. And while most of these jihadist groups fight first of all local or regional battles against governments and/or “infidel” fellow-Muslims and against Christians, the most extreme ones also embrace bin Laden’s declarations of war against the West and especially the United States.
Among the most threatening of these groups is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a member of Al Qaeda's global network of affiliates.
Bin Laden followers in Yemen made their mark in 2002, when they attacked and greatly damaged the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in the Yemini port of Aden.
Eventually, with the charismatic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. and Yemeni citizen, in their midst, AQAP planned terrorist attacks against Western interests inside and outside their region.
The Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan who killed 13 persons and injured dozens more, and the would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed to down a Northwest Airlines flight from London to Detroit in 2009, were motivated by AQAP propaganda.
Whether declaring their allegiance to bin Laden like al-Shabaab in Somalia or loosely following Al Qaeda’s ideology like Boko Haram in Nigeria, many of these extremist groups march to their own drummer.
When Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attracted jihadists from many parts of the world to fight the American-led invasion forces in 2003 and thereafter, the group and its leaders were followers of Al Qaeda Central. But more recently, during the Syrian rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, the original AQ lost its grip over its Iraqi affiliate.
Against the expressed will and order of bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vied for influence beyond Iraq by taking over the Syrian Al Qaeda branch Jabbat al-Nusra and push aside al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani.
To emphasize AQI’s leading role in the Al Qaeda movement and his declaration of independence Abu Bakr adopted first the name “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for his organization in defiance of al-Zawahiri’s order not to merge local AQ affiliates.
We will never know whether Abu Bakr would have ignored Al Qaeda Central’s orders if they had been issued by Osama bin Laden rather than his successor.
What we do know is this: Today Al Qaeda Central’s self-proclaimed affiliates and, more importantly, independent groups with bin Ladenism as their guiding ideology are stronger and control more real estate in the Middle East and parts of Africa than ever before.
Nothing is more indicative of the strength of Al Qaeda types of groups and their mujahideen than the return of AQI, now ISIS, to Anbar Province and their full or partial control of Ramadi and Fallujah, the very places, where U.S. troops along with Sunni fighters defeated and drove out Al Qaeda jihadists.
Right now, these fanatical, sectarian groups are fully engaged in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And whereas the immediate targets are the Assad government in Syria and Maliki government in Baghdad in the larger context of a power struggle between Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, and Shiites, led by Iran, all of these organizations consider Israel and the United States as their arch enemies.
In all of these respects, the growing network of Al Qaeda-like groups reflect Osama bin Laden’s so-called fatawa of 1996 and the follow-up in 1998, both declarations of war against infidel regimes in the Arab world and against western Christians and Jews.
As The New York Times reported the other day, Islamists fighting in Syria train and recruit Americans and other Westerners in their midst to carry out terrorist attacks once they return to their respective homelands.
Bin Laden is dead for almost three years. Al Qaeda Central is decimated.
But bin Ladenism is alive and well—and a growing threat.