What Does A Post-Bin Laden Al-Qaida Look Like?

Melissa Block talks with Juan Zarate, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the history of al-Qaida and what its future is post bin Laden.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The death of Osama bin Laden raises new questions about al-Qaida past and future. What did bin Laden mean to the organization when he was alive but in hiding? And now that he's dead, where does al-Qaida go from here?

BLOCK: I'm joined now by Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush.

Juan Zarate, welcome back to the program.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: What was your first reaction when you heard not just that bin Laden had been found but found and killed and found and killed where he was, inside Pakistan?

Mr. ZARATE: First reaction was I was ecstatic. I mean, I left the White House, and those of us who were in the counterterrorism community who left with the change of administrations left with a deep sense of I would say failure in not having found bin Laden, killed or captured him. I thought it was a strategic imperative to actually do that.

To imagine the end of the al-Qaida, you have to actually see the death or capture of bin Laden.

BLOCK: How much will be riding, do you think, on what is turned up in the search of the compound, the evidence that they find there?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, we've already heard from John Brennan, the president's assistant for counterterrorism, talking about the sensitive site exploitation that occurred there, the fact that the special operators gathered anything and everything that was relevant from the site.

And I think that's incredibly important, given the fact that what the administration hopes to do, and I think what the military hopes to do here, along with the intel community, is use that information to follow on and to, in John Brennan's words, break the back of al-Qaida leadership.

And so hopefully they have found documents or files or notes, perhaps even computer disks and flash drives, that present information about the whereabouts of al-Qaida operatives, the whereabouts of other key al-Qaida leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two.

And so this hopefully could be a treasure trove that leads to further aggressive activity to disrupt al-Qaida.

BLOCK: Wouldn't all that be incredibly time sensitive, though? I mean, obviously, it's out there now, bin Laden has been killed, they have their hands on this information. How valuable is it looking forward?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, it depends on the information. Some of it will expire very quickly, as you said, because people obviously now know bin Laden is dead.

Some of it, though, will be historical data that will, when put together with other data, provide enormous insights, perhaps. And so I think there is the potential that this could be a real treasure trove for the U.S. government.

BLOCK: When you think, Juan Zarate, when you think about the death of bin Laden and the significance for al-Qaida overall, this is obviously a network that has many, many tentacles all around the world. Where does this leave al-Qaida today, do you think?

Mr. ZARATE: Well, I think this is the end of an important chapter in the war on al-Qaida, the war on terror, whatever you want to call it. Clearly, bin Laden, the founder of this movement, the ideological innovator for the notion of attacking the far enemy, the United States and the West in the first instance, it was his organization in the '90s that really galvanized the Sunni violent extremist movement globally.

And now without him, it will clearly diminish the ability of the al-Qaida core leadership to direct this global movement.

BLOCK: But for a younger generation, say, of al-Qaida followers, would there be other leaders who have come up behind, who have maybe supplanted bin Laden in the years that he's been, theoretically at least, on the run?

Mr. ZARATE: You could see that. You could see the potential that, for example, some of the external operations, members of al-Qaida's core like Ilyas Kashmiri or Adnan Shukrijumah, who's an American, could take up elements of leadership.

But clearly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in al-Qaida, will take up the mantle. He has been a key voice for al-Qaida, an ideological driver. Certainly in the wake of the Arab spring, we've heard most from Ayman al-Zawahiri in the context of the al-Qaida universe. So he is the one who is going to take up the mantle.

The problem with him is he's not charismatic. He's not well-liked by all quarters, and he's certainly, in some ways, a divisive figure within the jihadi camps.

That said, I think al-Qaida members around the world are going to be looking for leadership. They're going to be looking for direction, and they're going to find it not just in al-Qaida core but in other places like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, folks like Anwar al-Awlaki, who have become an important voice for the movement, a siren's song, if you will, for Western recruits to Yemen.

BLOCK: Juan Zarate, thanks for coming in.

Mr. ZARATE: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Juan Zarate is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. He was deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush.

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