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Bin Laden's death deals severe blow to al Qaeda
Bin Laden left behind a disintegrated organisation with little popular support.
Analysis by Camille Tawil in London
Osama bin Laden was not hiding in a cave in Afghanistan when he was killed by a unit of elite US troops.
He was in fact living in a luxury accommodation valued at about $1 million in Abbottabad near the Pakistani capital Islamabad, near Pakistani military barracks.
Perhaps he did not live a life of luxury, but he most likely believed that such a place would eliminate suspicions and leave the security services – which pursued him for many years – to continue to focus their search for him in the tribal areas of Pakistan and the caves of Afghanistan, the two locations where it was widely believed the al Qaeda leader was hiding.
Bin Laden’s death will probably not mean the end of violence and terrorism carried out by his organisation. It may even lead to an escalation in order to avenge his killing.
But his departure would certainly be a great moral setback for al Qaeda since this organisation was exclusively associated with his name since its inception in 1988 at the hands of Arabs who participated in the Afghan Jihad. Al Qaeda did not have a commander during its 23 years of existence other than bin Laden. Therefore, his absence will create a vacuum that will not be easy for any successor to fill.
Bin Laden left behind disintegrated al- Qaeda in Afghanistan
Al Qaeda will undoubtedly appoint a successor to bin Laden. It may be Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, or someone else. But the new emir will face many challenges, and his handling of these challenges will determine the extent of his success or failure.
One of these key challenges is al Qaeda’s situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, where it is believed that most of the key leaders of the organisation are hiding.
The killing of bin Laden outside Islamabad may reveal that the organisation’s leaders decided to move to other areas because the campaign of strikes against them intensified, whether from the Pakistani army or from drones.
Many leaders in al Qaeda’s first, second and third ranks were killed during these strikes in recent years. It became clear that the organisation was suffering from a decline in its ability to produce new leaders to replace the leaders who were falling quickly, which did not allow for the training of people with the sufficient security and fighting experience to replace them.
This disintegration and shortage among al-Qaeda’s leadership ranks in Pakistan’s tribal areas may be one of the main reasons for the organisation failure to execute any new operations against targets in Western countries, despite numerous attempts, which were always thwarted. Cells that were tasked to execute these operations were always dismantled. The individuals who oversaw the planning of these operations in the tribal areas were also found, notably the planner of the 2010 alleged bomb plot in Europe.
Taliban may no longer be bound to protect al-Qaeda
Perhaps what makes matters worse for al Qaeda is that the Afghan Taliban today will probably not feel obligated to protect al Qaeda leaders as it did in 2001. The Taliban sacrificed its authority over Afghanistan when it refused to hand over bin Laden for trial on charges of involvement in the September 11 attacks.
Although it is unlikely that Taliban leaders, led by Mullah Omar, would hand over al Qaeda members who are currently on Afghan territory, the Taliban will undoubtedly be in a stronger position now when they talk to al Qaeda without bin Laden at its helm, regardless of who replaces him.
The Taliban will also be in a better position to decide whether to reconcile with the Afghan government without being obliged to continue to bear the burden of al Qaeda on its back. Although this may not mean giving up completely on the organisation, it could lead to reining it in and preventing it from doing things that might reflect negatively on the Afghans themselves, as happened with the September 11 attacks.
In spite of the obvious alliance between al Qaeda and Pakistani militant extremists, especially the Pakistan branch of the Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), al Qaeda leaders know that the arena in which they wanted to play, and where they can have influence, is not in South Asia but in Arab countries. Therefore, regardless of how important al Qaeda’s role grows in Pakistan, it will remain marginal because the organisation is only a guest of the Pakistani Taliban, whose leaders decide – regardless of al Qaeda’s opinion – if they want to reconcile with their government or to continue fighting against it.
Bin Laden’s al Qaeda lost the support of the Arab street
If these challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan were not sufficient on their own to cause insomnia for the new leader of al-Qaeda, then the developments in the Arab world, the primary focus of this organisation, will no doubt leave its mark on any future step the new “emir” will take.
The revolutions in the Arab world showed in clear terms that the Arab population resides in one valley and al Qaeda resides in another even if both sides agreed about the need for regime change.
The Arab people – whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen or other countries that revolted or are waiting for their turn to rise up – proved that al Qaeda cannot claim to represent a wide range of Arabs and Muslims. The organisation therefore cannot act in any way that does damage to the vast majority of these citizens.
Regime change in Egypt occurred after millions took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure. It did not come about through the bombing of a hotel frequented by Westerners, an attack on foreign tourists, or even the assassination of officials in the Egyptian government.
The same applies to Tunisia where the regime was overthrown through a popular revolution and not the result of the al Qaeda bombing of a temple frequented by Jews, as happened at the Djerba synagogue in 2002, or the abduction of foreign tourists in the desert, as happened at the hands of the Maghreb branch of al Qaeda in 2009.
Similarly, the Libyan revolution against the regime of Col. Moamer Qadhafi has also shown that al Qaeda had no prominent role in its mobilisation, despite accusations repeated by the Libyan regime that the rebels were linked to al Qaeda.
Security successes weakened al Qaeda in the Arab world
Al Qaeda’s absence from popular uprisings in the Arab world is tied to the multiple setbacks the organisation's branches endured in this region.
Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq today is only capable of executing a few sporadic operations that have no real impact on the security situation in the country. Only a few years ago, this organisation extended its influence over a number of Sunni-dominated provinces.
The actions of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq alienated even the residents of the Sunni areas – who had provided sanctuary to members of the organisation. This allowed the Iraqi government and coalition forces to eliminate the emirs of al Qaeda one after the other, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
This tightened the screws on their areas of deployment, leaving them unable to find an area that the Iraqi government could not reach.
The same applies to some extent to the branches of al Qaeda in the Gulf. The Saudi security forces inflicted a humiliating defeat over its cells in the past years, which forced it to move to Yemen where they regrouped in remote areas. In Yemen they took advantage of the many issues the Yemeni government was wrestling with such as the conflict with the Houthis in the north, the separatist insurgency in the south, the lack of natural resources and the problems of unemployment.
But even during the million-man demonstrations that took place on the streets of Sanaa and other Yemeni cities, both those in favour of President Ali Abdullah Saleh or the ones opposed to him that sought his departure, no trace of al Qaeda appeared among the ranks of the demonstrators. Once again the demonstrations indicated that Yemeni citizens live in one valley and al Qaeda lives in another.
In the Maghreb, the situation does not seem any better for al Qaeda. The organisation has been working for years outside the traditional areas of northern Algeria where the majority of the population resides. Algerian security services forced the organisation to move to the Sahel region, where the grip of the security forces is weaker and where activity is possible in the vast desert areas.
But their work in the desert is far from populated areas where rebels and insurgents flourish in any country. Therefore, any growth in al Qaeda’s activity in the Sahel region will not have a significant impact. Nowadays, al Qaeda activity appears to be limited to a large degree now to the kidnapping of Westerners for ransom.
The new leader of al Qaeda will face each of these challenges, so how will he deal with them?
The weeks and months ahead will no doubt bring an answer to the question, and it will become clear whether al Qaeda will continue its bloody attacks or learn the “lesson” of the Arab revolutions that change can happen through popular, peaceful mobilisation.