The Future of Al-Qaeda

The future of al-Qaeda
By Tariq Parvez and Hassan Abbas,
Foreign Policy, AfPak Channel, June 6, 2011   

Tariq Parvez, a leading expert on terrorism, is the former director general of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency and led Pakistan's National Counterterrorism Authority. Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam professor at Columbia University and author of the Asia Society's recently published "Pakistan 2020: A Vision for Building a Better Future."

The death of Osama bin Laden on May 2 in Abbottabad, Pakistan is undoubtedly a major setback for al-Qaeda and a significant achievement for the United States and its allies. In recent days, al-Qaeda purportedly has released several statements, including a lengthy two-part video, but its message since bin Laden's killing remains confused. While the first statements released by the group and its affiliates focused on praising bin Laden and vowing new attacks, the most recent video focuses instead on "one-man" terrorist attacks in the West, featuring mostly recycled footage mixed in with some new segments from American Adam Gadahn and Libyan al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi.
While spurring followers to commit "lone wolf" attacks is not new for al-Qaeda, the video's message is a far cry from sweeping past statements about change and revolution. Al-Qaeda has been driven off-message by bin Laden's death, as well as by the "Arab Spring" uprisings, which compounded years of decline brought on by people growing fed up with al-Qaeda's violent agenda. But whether these shocks to the organization are temporary or whether they presage the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is a critical question. In our assessment, Al-Qaeda's future depends on three factors.

First, al-Qaeda's ability to resolve the issue of its leadership succession expeditiously and to the satisfaction of all or most of its key players will be critical in determining its viability as a global presence with influence on far-flung affiliates from Algeria to Iraq. The news of Egyptian Saif al-Adel's appointment as the interim al-Qaeda chief is making the rounds, but it is not clear yet who appointed him to the job, whether he claims the title himself or if this is truly an organizational decision, though reports indicate that he was chosen by a small group of leaders based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. If any controversy arises within al-Qaeda circles about his stature and credentials, then the chances of the organization withering away into fragments shall increase considerably.

Apparently, none of the likely challengers for the successor's spot, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi and others, can step into bin Laden's shoes at this moment. Therefore, al-Adel or anyone who is confirmed as leader will almost certainly have to carry out a series of spectacular terrorist acts to prove his credentials and get al-Qaeda back in the game. That is, no doubt, a tall order. But given the resilience of the organization over the years, and despite an aggressive counter-terrorism effort from the United States and its allies around the world, al-Qaeda should not be totally written off. But if the new leader, when he is announced, fails to quickly receive support and public declarations of loyalty from al-Qaeda affiliates and is not able to carry out big attacks, then al-Qaeda may have suffered a near-death blow.

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