Is Bin Laden's Death A Blow To Al-Qaida's Network?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News with special coverage this morning on the death of Osama bin Laden. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The next voice to join our coverage is Dan Byman. He's at the Brookings Institution. Before that was a professional staff member on the 9/11 commission. Has become an expert on al-Qaida.
Welcome to the program, sir.
Mr. DAN BYMAN (Brookings Institution): Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: How well prepared is al-Qaida to survive the death of its leader and symbol and remain a threat?
Mr. BYMAN: Al-Qaida has a formal succession plan. Ayman Zawahiri is going to take the reins. And bin Laden has prepared for his own death. But having a plan and being prepared in reality are not always the same. And I think this is going to cause significant disarray in the organization.
INSKEEP: What do you mean? What's the difference there?
Mr. BYMAN: Well, they have a plan. And you'll see Zawahiri step up. But this is an organization that is defined as much by personal networks as it is by organizational charts. Bin Laden's charisma, the credibility he's established in the jihadist community and really the international status he has will be exceptionally difficult for anyone to replace.
MONTAGNE: You know, how much is al-Qaida different, though, as an organization than it was win bin Laden's location was last known, back in late 2001?
Mr. BYMAN: The organization has decentralized somewhat. But what we found again and again is for the most serious plots there have been significant linkages to the al-Qaida core in Pakistan. So it is not a completely networked organization. The leadership still matters and in fact matters tremendously.
INSKEEP: And, of course, the leadership matters in a lot of ways, one of them being simply the symbolism that you mentioned, the propaganda value of Osama bin Laden being loose was probably worth more than this money or worth more than his leadership or his instructions.
Mr. BYMAN: Every day bin Laden survived he was a symbol of successful defiance of the United States. The world's wealthiest country, the country with the biggest and most powerful military simply could not seem to find and kill one man it was hunting. So his death today - or yesterday, in particular in a dramatic raid, is really a success.
INSKEEP: But let me ask you, Mr. Byman, because this has been much noted in recent months that al-Qaida has been very little of a factor, perhaps no factor at all, in the Arab uprisings. They have been pushed off the front pages. To what extent had this organization already been overshadowed by other events in the Muslim world?
Mr. BYMAN: It's worth thinking about al-Qaida in terms of both its narrative and its operations. The Arab spring really hurt its narrative. It showed that peaceful change was more successful than violence. And that was a tremendous blow.
But before bin Laden's death the organization's operational capacity remained significant. His death is a blow to its operational capacity, which remains but is diminished.
INSKEEP: What is that capacity exactly?
Mr. BYMAN: Well, we don't know how many attacks it's capable of launching and where it can do so. But this is an organization that by itself and with its affiliates has repeatedly tried and at times succeeded in doing attacks since 9/11 despite increased defenses, despite a major campaign against it. And it's also supported insurgencies, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim world.
MONTAGNE: You know, as part of delivering this news, the State Department has issued a travel advisory, generally suggesting there is some risk. What, in your opinion, are the risks of some to the death of Osama bin Laden?
Mr. BYMAN: In the short term to me there are two risks. One is that people who bin Laden inspired will simply seek revenge. They'll be angry. They'll want to express their anger by attacking whatever target. In their eyes preferably a U.S. or Israeli target if they can.
The other danger, though, is that the organization will have to prove it's relevant. We're talking now. Others are talking about whether this organization will matter in five years. And by attacking, by causing blood shed, it will show that it's still a player. And that may drive it to do operations in the short term.
INSKEEP: I wonder if there are other extremist groups which might be happy to see al-Qaida be proved irrelevant at this point, because it might raise their own status.
Mr. BYMAN: It's certainly possible that rival groups will come to the fore. One thing bin Laden did, though, was he was an unusual leader. He was someone willing to work with rivals, to allow them to have their agendas, their own operations. So many of them saw him as a resource rather than as a threat.
MONTAGNE: So you now still though have basically al-Qaida, you know, Yemen's version and you had Iraq's version. Are those kinds of al-Qaida operations still going to go forward?
Mr. BYMAN: Unfortunately the affiliate groups are going to go forward. Their focus may change. They may become more local than they were when bin Laden was alive. But these are very powerful groups. They've demonstrated operational capacity in their own country and at time outside it. And bin Laden's death is not going to end them.
INSKEEP: Mr. Byman, pleasure speaking with you this morning.
Mr. BYMAN: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: Dan Byman was a staff member of the 9/11 commission and he is now at the Brookings Institution.
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