"Osama bin Laden's Death Doesn't Matter."
Not so fast. It's hard to imagine the chapter of history that began in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, ending more conclusively than it did on May 1, when the body of the man who masterminded the worst terrorist attack in American history slipped off the deck of the USS Vinson into the Arabian Sea. But at the same time, Osama bin Laden's death and watery burial were strangely anticlimactic. By the time the team of Navy SEALs burst into his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden's terrorist organization and his place within it were far different from what they had been when he plotted the 9/11 attacks.
The attacks established the organization that bin Laden had founded in 1988 as the deadliest, most infamous terrorist group on the planet. But after 9/11 Al Qaeda did not, as was widely feared, succeed in launching another spectacular terrorist attack on the United States; bin Laden himself receded from view, and it began to look as if his organization's most fearsome days were behind it. In 2008, terrorism analyst Marc Sageman argued in Leaderless Jihad that "Al Qaeda Central in particular was neutralized operationally," its communications degraded "to the point that there was no meaningful command and control between the al Qaeda leadership and its followers."
But while al Qaeda's operational structure was damaged, it was still intact. In recent years, bin Laden had steadily rebuilt the battered organization in Pakistan, and he and his lieutenants always retained more control over its day-to-day operations than post-9/11 optimists believed.
The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London, for example, were at first attributed to self-radicalized terrorists who taught themselves about jihad on the Internet. Al Qaeda's claim of credit was dismissed as the plea of an organization desperate for relevance trying to exploit a local event. But it later emerged that the cell's mastermind, Mohammad Siddique Khan, was trained in an al Qaeda camp and visited Pakistan at least two times before the attack. While in Pakistan, he and another locally trained jihadist recorded martyrdom videos -- a standard al Qaeda practice -- which were released by al Qaeda's media wing in the months after the bombing. Khan was also in direct contact with Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of bin Laden's most senior lieutenants, who reportedly "retasked" Khan and his associates with attacking the London Underground after meeting with them in Pakistan. Terrorism expert Peter Bergen described the bombings as "a classic al Qaeda plot."
By the time of bin Laden's death, al Qaeda was again training would-be terrorists in Pakistan, recruiting fighters for Iraq and other conflicts, and issuing propaganda on a mind-numbing basis. (Before 9/11, any al Qaeda statement was worth scrutinizing down to its last word. After the attacks, the group produced so many public statements that analysts struggled to keep up.) Because of his newfound celebrity and the loss of his Afghan safe haven, bin Laden's own operational role was necessarily more limited after 9/11 than it had been before. But the simple fact of his survival was of immense symbolic value for al Qaeda. After all, how could the world's biggest military, in the employ of its most powerful country, search for almost ten years and fail to find a single middle-aged man in waning health? To his supporters, only God's protection explained this mystery.
Bin Laden's death renders that protection considerably more debatable in the eyes of would-be jihadists. Less mystically, global jihad has lost its marquee name: Egyptian jihadist Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's probable successor, may be an effective operator, but has far less starpower than his former boss and is unlikely to inspire Muslims as effectively. No less importantly, al Qaeda will find it hard to recruit and fundraise without bin Laden to lead their cause. Rival groups may exploit al Qaeda's leadership weakness to attract the most motivated young men and most important donors, further weakening the group in the long term.