With the death of Usama bin Ladin in May 2011, Americans will be safer in the long-term. Without Bin Ladin’s magnetic appeal, al-Qa`ida’s revolutionary movement will likely wither and its message, combined with the peaceful revolutions in the Arab world, will lose credibility. In the short-term, however, the U.S. homeland remains at risk. In many ways, U.S. security services today face more challenges than ever before because the threat profile has become so diverse, with multiple terrorist groups and individuals—many with no connection to established terrorist organizations—intent on striking the United States.
In the wake of 9/11, for example, al-Qa`ida sought to maintain momentum by planning and executing another “spectacular” attack on the U.S. homeland. American authorities found that subsequent terrorist plots targeting the homeland were tied directly back to operational planners in al-Qa`ida’s core organization. Threat briefings at the time were not yet dominated by homegrown terrorists, or by militants part of al-Qa`ida’s affiliate groups. As a result, U.S. intelligence resources could focus on a hard target—al-Qa`ida’s operationally savvy leadership—with the classic tools of human and technical penetration and partnership with an informal global network of security services. Today, authorities have to detect plots that may have no connection to established terrorist groups or known operatives.
Indeed, the stream of broken terrorist plots in the United States offers a striking contrast to those early, core al-Qa`ida-driven plotlines. From Somali youth in Minnesota to individuals across regions of the United States, the broken plots frequently involve youth who were ideologically inspired by the al-Qa`ida revolution, but the plotters had never met an al-Qa`ida member. Bin Ladin’s death in Pakistan may well accelerate this shift in plots from those with some linkage to al-Qa`ida—training, funding, or operational guidance—to those only inspired by a message.
In conjunction with these unaffiliated extremists, the United States also faces growing threats from al-Qa`ida’s affiliate organizations, such as its branch in Yemen known as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that was responsible for two recent plots on the U.S. homeland. Without the leadership coherence Bin Ladin brought to al-Qa`ida, subordinate commanders might pursue their own plotlines more aggressively, resulting in different threat strands directed against the United States. Before Bin Ladin’s death, these threats may have developed under a more unified al-Qa`ida umbrella as documents recently found in Bin Ladin’s compound show that he had direct involvement in pressing for attacks against the U.S. homeland. Today, however, al-Qa`ida operatives or affiliated militants may seek to attack the United States without any consultation with al-Qa`ida’s core leadership or other al-Qa`ida affiliates, making plot detection more difficult. These efforts might run in parallel to the cementing role of AQAP as the successor to the leadership in Pakistan, especially for Western Muslims who might be susceptible to the English-language propaganda of Samir Khan, Anwar al-`Awlaqi, and Inspire magazine.
This article explains why Bin Ladin’s death will weaken al-Qa`ida’s central leadership, as well as al-Qa`ida’s ideological attraction. Yet it warns that the threat from al-Qa`ida’s affiliates, such as AQAP in Yemen, will only grow more pronounced now that Bin Ladin is dead. The article concludes by showing why U.S. authorities face an even greater challenge today, as threat detection has become more labor intensive due to the disconnected nature of current terrorist plots.
Bin Ladin’s Death Will Weaken Al-Qa`ida’s Central Leadership
In the long-term, Bin Ladin’s death will reduce al-Qa`ida ideological reach in the West. His ability to generate star power that attracted a wave of disaffected youth worldwide to the al-Qa`ida banner is now gone. Bin Ladin was a revolutionary, not just an operational leader, and the already-declining revolutionary message of al-Qa`ida will wither faster without its undisputed leading messenger. Over time, the decline in al-Qa`ida’s ability to recruit followers virtually will help reduce the threat to the United States. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s second-in-charge, lacks Bin Ladin’s global appeal, and he is not as respected within the organization. Al-Zawahiri was seen as fractious and difficult during his time leading Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and he has never been nearly as revered among al-Qa`ida acolytes as has Bin Ladin. Furthermore, he lacks Bin Ladin’s charisma globally, and his public pronouncements veer from those of a respected leader to angry diatribes. He almost certainly will lack the ability to keep the organization focused with strong leadership, and the group may suffer leadership fissures, or even fractures, as leaders buck al-Zawahiri’s command and consider how to move forward among themselves.
Some commentators have suggested that the al-Qa`ida core group in Pakistan might execute an “off-the-shelf” operation quickly in retaliation. Yet al-Qa`ida’s core leadership has been struggling to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland for years, and Bin Ladin’s death will only impede this further. Information acquired from Bin Ladin’s compound in Pakistan indicate that he was pressing, repeatedly and over time, for more attacks; his group’s inability to act on his insistent demand for more plots suggests that al-Qa`ida still lacks capacity in the West, and rapid-turnaround plotting might simply lead to less sophisticated attacks such as the shooting of the Saudi Embassy employee in Pakistan in mid-May. Moreover, al-Qa`ida’s leadership will highlight security in the coming weeks as they absorb the implications of their leader’s death and try to determine how it occurred.
Even if a plot is being prepared, the group’s past operations clearly show that cell leaders will move when they are ready, not according to symbolic timetables. The security risks of delaying an operation for any amount of time are too high to hold operatives in check for long periods. Their failures in the United States have been frequent: allowing a plot to sit on the back-burner would strike an operator as a mistake in an environment where days and weeks raise the risk that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement will identify plotters.
Without Bin Ladin’s captivating appeal, the key question in coming months, beyond whether al-Qa`ida members in the tribal areas unite or begin to fragment, will be whether affiliated groups, especially in Yemen, redouble efforts to strike an iconic U.S. target. Their motive would be not only to avenge the death of Bin Ladin, but also to highlight their emergence as a new center of jihadist gravity for recruits and donors who feel they cannot travel to Pakistan’s border belt or who may decline to donate to a group that is losing credibility because of inaction.
The Threat From Al-Qa`ida’s Affiliates
AQAP, widely acknowledged as the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland outside of core al-Qa`ida, already has leadership that is benefiting from Westerners. Its propaganda is augmented by an egotist jihadist, Anwar al-`Awlaqi, who appears to be as focused on spreading his brand as on developing the more detached Bin Ladinist image of a charismatic, thoughtful leader who is above the fray. If there is an opportunity to insert a trainee from the Arabian Peninsula into North America, AQAP will be able to springboard from Bin Ladin’s death to an opportunistic strike focused as much on casualties as on branding AQAP as the new al-Qa`ida center of action. Al-`Awlaqi’s access to Western recruits, in a country that is seen as both an inexpensive center for Arabic language training and an easier travel destination than Pakistan’s tribal areas, may well translate into a steady stream of plots against the U.S. homeland emanating from Yemen, especially if AQAP’s leadership attempts a less strategic, more scattershot approach to targeting.
AQAP may redouble efforts to hit hard targets—embassies and other facilities that were targeted earlier in the decade but that are now too difficult to reach for most extremist cells—but these efforts would take some time, perhaps months, to organize. Similarly, the attempt against a U.S. airliner over Detroit in December 2009 suggests that they might push again for an iconic target on U.S. soil; with the number of recruits from which they can draw, including a large volume of U.S. students in Yemen, homeland plotting is a certainty. The lawlessness of Yemen might now give them the time and space to plot carefully. The training and plotting opportunities in Yemen might be coupled with more sophisticated recruiting. Al-`Awlaqi’s use of the internet shows AQAP’s media savvy toward the West, and the recent plot involving a British Airways employee underscores the fact that AQAP can be technologically adaptive, similar to the efforts of al-Qa`ida’s core plotters to find potential candidates from YouTube.
Revenge attacks by all al-Qa`ida affiliates will put a premium on personal safety for U.S. businesses operating overseas. Companies and individuals will probably witness strikes against high-profile locations such as hotels, resorts, nightclubs, bars, or other locations in high-threat areas that are known as venues where Westerners gather; these are easy to organize, have soft security, and are highly recognizable internationally. Besides the threat from al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), like-minded militants in Indonesia, for example, have repeatedly targeted Westerners, and the rise of independents in Indonesia who appear at the center of plots there all raise the prospect that they might be an outlier threat in coming years, pushing not only for more strikes internally but for more targeting elsewhere. It is also possible that terrorists might target U.S. strategic interests, such as oil facilities, but this is less likely. Strategic sites are not easy to access for terrorists seeking a fast fix for vengeance. As with copycat plots in the United States during recent years—such as the backpack bomb plotters in New York—soft strikes overseas against cultural emblems such as nightclubs could easily spark copycat attempts in the United States.
Time will favor jihadists from Yemen and elsewhere as they seek to avenge the death of Bin Ladin by hitting Americans at home. They are committed, and their sense of time is different from the short lenses of Western publics and governments. From the Western optic, no retaliatory response in the next two months would lead many to suspect that nothing is being prepared, and that the slow crippling of the al-Qa`ida movement has accelerated. This would be a mistake. An attack in six months would be a success in the eyes of the adversary, and a six month timeframe, although long for Americans, would seem insignificant if the target were substantial enough.
The Growing Challenges for Security Services
Time will not favor security services, including federal, state, and local law enforcement in the United States. The plots that crossed security officials’ desks every morning nine years ago often emanated from core al-Qa`ida, and more plots—significant, but still declining in number—will appear on the daily Threat Matrix as the inheritors of Bin Ladin’s mantle, such as AQAP, try to make a name for themselves to prove to those who fund them and travel for training that they are still in the game. Even harder to track are the local threats, youth who lack connectivity to couriers, communications, or trainers from known terrorist entities. The ideology that motivates them is dying, but its death is proving unsurprisingly slow. Bin Ladin’s message has been compelling: overthrow corrupt leaders and return to a time that better reflects Islam’s golden age. His death may accelerate the decline of that message—especially combined with the peaceful revolutions sweeping the Arab world—but it may take years.
The expansion of the threat base in the United States will raise the risk of a successful, lower-level plot. More diverse plotters make intelligence and prevention far more difficult to track. With the overdone reaction to Bin Ladin’s demise, there is no focus on the nature of plots in the past few years. There have been plots linked to al-Qa`ida’s core leadership, such as Najibullah Zazi’s plan to attack targets in New York, as well as attacks from like-minded militants, sometimes called homegrowns, such as Nidal Malik Hasan who went on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood in Texas. Additionally, there have been plots or terrorist activity from al-Qa`ida affiliates or associated groups: the Pakistani Taliban (implicated in the Times Square bombing and Miami funding cases), Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (implicated in David Headley’s activities), AQAP (implicated in the December 2009 airliner plot as well as the October 2010 cargo planes plot), and al-Shabab (implicated in a number of recruitment efforts where members of the Somali diaspora in the United States traveled to fight in Somalia). All of these disparate plots and activities demonstrate why security services in the United States will be overburdened in tracking multiple, unconnected strands of intelligence.
In the midst of budget limitations and competing priorities—Mexican cartels, the rise of national gangs, and the continued threat of drug violence in city streets—spending money chasing less sophisticated al-Qa`ida fellow travelers may well lose traction. The operations of today are labor intensive: finding small clusters of youth in major cities and following them to determine the extent of their networks is painstaking, and these clusters’ lack of connectivity means that they are hard to find through national intelligence programs. Local law enforcement, with federal support, will be crucial, but expensive. In the past, most plots were uncovered by federal authorities, who needed local support and who operated in an environment where there were fewer questions about the threat or the need to spend on counterterrorism programs.
The commitment of al-Qa`ida ideologues has proven durable over time. They believe what they are doing is not only right, but required, and religiously sanctioned. Too many commentators are already speaking of Bin Ladin’s demise as a “watershed,” with the implication that threat in critical areas, particularly the United States, might decline as a result. Over the long-term, this makes sense: a revolutionary movement will ultimately fail if the message lacks credibility. Yet as the series of broken homegrown plots in the United States has proven during recent years, the half-life of revolutions is long. Smaller, more dispersed, less lethal operations might initially appear to represent a rising threat of homegrown extremists. This is unlikely. Without a standard-bearer, and in the midst of the decline in the al-Qa`ida messaging draw in recent years, homegrown strikes in the United States would more likely represent the adoption of al-Qa`ida’s ideology by a small group who have no hope of sparking the kind of global wave many feared in the years after 9/11.
Bin Ladin’s death makes the United States safer in the long-term, but still at risk in the short-term. It is critical not to lose focus on, or divert resources from, the terrorist threat facing the U.S. homeland almost 10 years after 9/11.
Philip Mudd is Senior Global Adviser, Oxford Analytica. He was the senior intelligence adviser at the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his departure in March 2010, and he was Deputy Director of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency until his assignment to the FBI in August 2005.
 In the immediate years after 9/11, the mix of U.S.-centric intelligence reporting from human and technical sources, as well as detainees, regularly flowed from the tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.