Al-Qaida may outlive taking of bin Laden
The al-Qaida network probably would survive the death or capture of Osama bin Laden, but it would be much less effective and could splinter into several groups, U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
Al-Qaida has no one with the charisma and abilities to replace bin Laden, officials say. But it would retain a cadre of operational planners, including senior operatives involved in the bombings of the USS Cole and American embassies in East Africa, who would continue to threaten American interests.
If bin Laden were to be caught or killed, his chief deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahri, is widely believed to be next in line. But al-Zawahri is thought to be with bin Laden, so it is unlikely he would remain at large after any operation that ends in the capture or death of bin Laden.
Even if he took over, al-Zawahri does not inspire the same fervor that bin Laden does.
"They won't die for Ayman. They'll die for Osama," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterror chief.
Probably the next most senior surviving lieutenant after al-Zawahri is Saif al-Adil, bin Laden's security and intelligence chief, officials say.
The trail of the world's most wanted terrorist appears to have gotten somewhat warmer since the capture in Pakistan two weeks ago of his operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Rumors abound of U.S. operations to hunt for him, as do apparently false reports that he has been found.
"It would be quite a heavy blow," said Stan Bedlington, a former CIA terrorism analyst. "I suspect that al-Qaida will carry on even if Osama bin Laden is either killed or captured. Osama bin Laden as we now know has become quite popular in parts of the world."
Regional groups al-Qaida has funded and trained would not lay down their weapons at his death, and his surviving lieutenants would be expected to continue to plan operations with existing terrorist cells around the world.
And what many U.S. officials see as the root cause of terrorism -- a lack of economic opportunities in the Muslim world -- would not be eliminated.
How bin Laden goes down will make a difference in the future of the organization, Cannistraro said.
"If he dies a martyr, he's someone to emulate," he said. "If he's pranced around in an orange jumpsuit, you have taken a lot of the mystique out of him."
But bin Laden the prisoner might be a catalyst for operations aimed at freeing him -- particularly hostage-taking incidents overseas.
Some of the few public statements from U.S. intelligence officials on al-Qaida after bin Laden came last year from Vice Adm. Thomas Wilson, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
He told the Senate Intelligence Committee the surviving leaders would have difficulty keeping the terrorist group together.
"There is no identified successor capable of rallying so many divergent nationalities, interests and groups to create the kind of cohesion he fostered among Sunni Islamic extremists around the world," Wilson said in written testimony.
Wilson said that without bin Laden, al-Qaida could "splinter into a number of loosely affiliated groups, united by a common cause and sharing common operatives."
A splintered al-Qaida probably wouldn't have the wherewithal to pull off complex operations such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or the embassy bombings, but the network would remain a threat, Wilson said.