Al Qaeda deputies waiting in wings

By Farah Stockman and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / May 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden’s demise struck a significant blow to the global terrorist movement he spearheaded two decades years ago, but not a mortal one, US officials said yesterday, warning of potential retaliatory attacks as well as the rise of new leaders.

Although no terrorist leader today has the charisma or stature of bin Laden, the officials said, his deputies and affiliates have already been far more prominent in planning attacks and spreading the message of global jihad.

Recent plots against the United States — the attempted attack on airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and the attempted Times Square bombing last year — were organized by the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Pakistan, respectively, affiliates with their own operational and funding structures.

“The battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden,’’ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters yesterday.

Bin Laden’s exact role in the daily operations of Al Qaeda — and what the impact of his death will be on the group — is the source of much speculation in Washington.

“Nobody’s going to have the ability to fill his shoes,’’ said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry said bin Laden’s wealth, connections, and history of attacks on such sites as the American embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole near Yemen in 2000 gave him unique standing. “That built up his iconic reputation, which just created a recruitment and organizational structure that no one else is going to be able to replace,’’ Kerry said.

Others, however, said that bin Laden’s movements had become so constricted by the time of his death that he had become a mere figurehead.

Some analysts said yesterday that the influence of Al Qaeda itself has been greatly diminished, even before bin Laden’s death, because the recent uprisings in the Arab world have proven that peaceful protesters can topple governments more effectively than suicide bombers can. Al Qaeda has played almost no role in the historic transformation sweeping across the region.

“Al Qaeda has really been largely irrelevant, and this will tend to make it even more irrelevant,’’ Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, told reporters yesterday on a conference call organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

In addition, Al Qaeda’s strength has been eroded by a relentless drone campaign and arrests by Pakistani authorities, which have taken dozens of terrorist operatives out of commission. The group’s number three position has had to be replaced at least three times in recent years, Pakistani officials say, crippling bin Laden’s ability to operate.

“He was a symbol, frankly,’’ said Max Abrahms, a fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. When bin Laden formed Al Qaeda in 1988, he controlled everything, from recruitment to fund-raising to planning attacks, Abrahms said.

After the Sept. 11 attacks scattered the organization’s leaders, he had to step back from day-to-day management and rely more on deputies and affiliates around the world to carry out plots.

Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer, director of the Combating Terrorism Center, an independent think tank at West Point, said bin Laden functioned more like the chairman of a board than a field commander in recent years.

“We know that he did not have a lot of operational control,’’ Sawyer said. “He provided strategic guidance, but he was functioning from afar. It is far from clear what the impact of his death will be.’’

Bin Laden’s reputation as a spiritual leader created a cult of personality so strong that new terrorist recruits pledged allegiance not to Al Qaeda but to bin Laden himself.

But some of bin Laden’s deputies are seen as just as instrumental. Ayman al-Zawahri, an aging Egyptian doctor who is considered Al Qaeda’s number two, has put out far more video and audio messages than bin Laden and is widely viewed as the operational brains behind the organization.

“In terms of strategic vision, Zawahri has contributed the lion’s share in Al Qaeda,’’ said Will McCants, who served as senior adviser for countering violent extremists at the State Department until two weeks ago. “He is a professional revolutionary. He has been doing this from the age of 15.’’

Michael Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said he expects Zawahri to step into bin Laden’s role, though lesser figures such as Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric in hiding in Yemen, will remain potent and potentially lethal leaders in their own right.

Zawahri “is that next inspirationally viewed leader who has probably the greatest scope and understanding of the operation,’’ Rogers said. “Awlaki is an important player, but not a senior player in the Al Qaeda operation worldwide.’’

Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, recently tried to boost his international standing by launching an English-language online magazine called Inspire that sought to recruit Americans to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but many intelligence agents view the effort as a failure.

The new face of the terror network could end up being a young preacher called Abu Yahya al-Libi, other specialists say. He is by far the most charismatic leader and has been instrumental in generating enthusiasm among young recruits.

Libi, a Libyan fighter who went to live in Afghanistan, was virtually unknown when he was arrested in 2002. But after he escaped from the US-run Bagram prison in Afghanistan in 2005, he gained widespread prominence, issuing a flurry of videos that called President Bush an “agent of Satan’’ and mocking moderate Islamic scholars who opposed violence.

“Yahya is way up there in terms of visibility and has surpassed Zawahri,’’ said Ben Venzke, chief executive of IntelCenter, a contractor that tracks Al Qaeda’s messages for the US military intelligence community. “He is a very significant figure. He has a lot of appeal and a lot of credibility.’’

McCants, the former State Department adviser, said that if bin Laden did not leave instructions detailing who his successor will be, competition might break out among the various lieutenants, which could further weaken the movement.

Some warn bin Laden could become more inspirational dead than alive, prompting a wave of leaderless terrorist attacks, even among American citizens.

“We must continue to be vigilant,’’ said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “One of the concerns that I most have is that a homegrown terrorist will choose this moment to strike in an attempt to retaliate for Osama bin Laden’s death.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at; Theo Emery at