Al-Qaida is going through its first leadership succession in more than 20 years.
The terrorist group started in the summer of 1988 with two men at the top: Osama bin Laden as its head, and Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri as his second in command. And like any good management team, the two made contingency plans should anything happen to them. Just what those plans were is likely to become clear in the coming days and weeks.
"Osama bin Laden's death is something that he himself foresaw well over a decade ago," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "In a series of interviews in the late 1990s, he had said that he not only welcomed his martyrdom but had prepared so there would be thousands of Osamas who would follow in his footsteps."
There may not be thousands of Osamas, but there certainly are a good number of followers, and U.S. officials are rushing to identify the group's new emerging leaders now. Certainly bin Laden's deputy, Zawahiri, is still a force in the organization. He has a rich terrorism pedigree, dating back more than 30 years when he was tried as one of the alleged masterminds of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
"Zawahiri is clearly poised to step into bin Laden's shoes," said Hoffman. "He has the street cred of being a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist ever since he was a teenager."
Bin Laden's Shoes Will Be Quickly Filled
Zawahiri is hardly alone. There are others. U.S. officials say al-Qaida's arm in Yemen poses the most serious threat to this country. Among its members is a radical imam named Anwar al-Awlaki. He was born in the U.S. and has become the voice of the violent jihadi movement. He has a huge following on the Internet and is likely to goad young men to action in the coming days.
Terrorism experts say that Ayman al-Zawahiri, currently the No. 2 of al-Qaida, is well-positioned to take the helm of the terrorist group. This picture is from an online video released on Sept. 2, 2006.
Hoffman says that while Awlaki may not have bin Laden's wide appeal, he has his fingers on the pulse of a core demographic that al-Qaida needs: young people.
"Terrorists depend on the young people to radicalize and recruit," Hoffman said. "And Awlaki speaks to them." While Awlaki doesn't have bin Laden's stature, he will likely be one of the key people to carry on his message now that he is gone.
Awlaki is thought to have quite a record already. U.S. officials say he helped recruit the young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009. He is alleged to have played a key role in the cargo bomb plot late last year, which also originated from Yemen. U.S. officials expect an attack to avenge bin Laden's death in the coming days, and al-Qaida's arm in Yemen may be the best positioned to strike. Hoffman says the plot is probably already in the pipeline.
"The more professional terrorists already have the plans, and now they are going to move to implement them effectively," he said.
How Much Does Bin Laden's Death Really Matter?
Al-Qaida has called on affiliates do its dirty work in the past. In 2002, when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan sent bin Laden and Zawahiri into hiding, al-Qaida leaders sent word to their affiliates. They told them to launch attacks against the West. That fall, a car bomb exploded in Bali outside a popular tourist nightclub, killing hundreds. An Indonesian terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
The man who created the al-Qaida terrorist network that killed 3,000 people in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is dead.
Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says the U.S. is already bracing for what will come next. "The attack may not be tomorrow, it may not be the next day, but it is almost certain there will be a retaliatory attack," he said. "So we need to maintain our vigilance against that and not let our guard down a week after the death has passed."
Which raises the question: If al-Qaida still has the ability to strike the U.S., how much does bin Laden's death really matter?
Sawyer says it is still too early to tell what bin Laden's death is going to mean to the organization in the long run. "Al-Qaida has always been and will remain a very much decentralized phenomenon," said Sawyer. "It is an organization that has lived for 24 years and has gone through several mutations. The question now before us is what is this next mutation and what will it look like into the future?"
Sawyer says if bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan eight years ago in the caves of Tora Bora, al-Qaida might well have died with him. Now the organization is diversified enough it could weather bin Laden's death — and hardly miss a beat.