In the immediate aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden much attention has been focused on the fact that al-Qa‘ida, in stark contrast to its operational configuration a decade ago, is no longer a cohesive whole. It is a “franchise” many rightfully point out, even inspiring sophisticated and deadly attacks by “lone wolves”—those sharing only in al-Qa‘ida ideological and strategic vision. Consequently, it is not surprising that several informed commentators have emphasized that Bin Laden’s death does little to “tip the scales in our favor.” Indeed, there should be little doubt that long ago al-Qa‘ida transcended a single man. Highly capable and inspirational figures—Attiyatallah, Abuy Yahya al-Libi and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri—are poised to assume bin Laden’s role and continue his role as spearhead of the global jihadist movement. Moreover, in the short term it seems entirely likely that there will be an upsurge in jihadist activity, specifically a greater quantity of attacks and, quite possibly, attacks that qualitatively precipitate relatively higher death tolls and levels of terror than has been the case recently. In short, it can be strongly argued that bin Laden’s death does little to alter today’s threat assessment of al-Qa‘ida.
The long-term impact of bin Laden’s death, however, is likely to be significant for at least three reasons. First, it should be recalled that members of al-Qa‘ida swore a personal oath to bin Laden, not his organization. With his absence a certain loss of moral is to be expected. Perhaps of greater significance is the effect this will have on an embarrassing leitmotif of America’s “War on Terrorism”: bin Laden’s ability to escape capture since 1998. It is difficult to overemphasize the impact his perceived invulnerability had on his followers; in many ways it gave bin Laden an aura of sacrosanct protection by Allah. With its removal it seems likely that the jihadist movement will lose some of its momentum, even if the metrics of measuring “morale” are hard to gauge. Second, bin Laden’s death coincides perfectly with the largely secular awakening now taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. While we cannot yet predict what the mid- and long-term outcome of this mass movement will be, it is entirely possible that it will serve to weaken the jihadist movement at a time when it is suffering a major setback with the death of bin Laden. Finally, the circumstances of bin Laden’s death fully removes the thin veil obstructing a long obvious fact: Pakistan’s ISI is not only aiding the Taliban to ensure that the endgame in Afghanistan conforms to their perceived needs, elements of it are clearly intertwined with al-Qa‘ida.
It is now clear that no amount of denial or obfuscation can impede a widespread understanding that Pakistan’s ISI is actively working against U.S. interests. This has, of course, long been known. Moreover, it can be argued that this reality continues because it somehow reflects the best possible options in a very complex situation. Regardless of how one feels about the ISI’s role, the U.S. public will now weigh in on the debate. Thus, it is entirely conceivable that relations with Pakistan will continue to sour; that development could result in several outcomes, few of them good and many of them unanticipated.