Al-Qaida's Resilience May Mean Its Survival Without Osama Bin Laden The killing of Osama bin Laden means al-Qaida is going through its first leadership succession in more than 20 years. But the terrorist group made contingency plans in case of its leaders' deaths, and those plans are likely to become clear in the coming days and weeks.

Al-Qaida's Resilience May Mean Its Survival

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

When President Obama announced late last night that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden, he was quick to say it did not mean the end of al-Qaida.

President BARACK OBAMA: There's no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.

NORRIS: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that the al-Qaida leader, like any good CEO, had a plan for the organization after his death.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 the two made contingency plans.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Security Studies Program, Georgetown University): Osama bin Laden's death is something that he himself foresaw well over a decade ago.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Bruce Hoffman. He's a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

Prof. HOFFMAN: And actually, in a series of interviews in the late 1990s, had said that he not only welcomed his martyrdom, but had prepared so that there would be thousands of Osamas that would follow in his footsteps.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There may not be thousands of Osamas, but there certainly are a good number of followers. And U.S. officials are trying to identify them now. Certainly his deputy, the Egyptian Zawahiri, is still a force in the organization. And there are others. U.S. officials say al-Qaida's arm in Yemen poses the most serious threat to the U.S. Among its members is a radical imam named Anwar al-Awlaki.

Awlaki 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.

Prof. HOFFMAN: He may not have bin Laden's wide appeal, but I would say that it's probably much deeper in the core demographic, young people that terrorists depend upon to radicalize and recruit.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hoffman says al-Awlaki doesn't have bin Laden's stature, but he will likely be one of the key people to carry on his message. He's thought to have quite a record already. U.S. officials say he helped recruit the young Nigerian who tried to blow up an airliner two Christmases ago. And he had a key role in the cargo bomb plot late last year.

Bruce Hoffman says an attack to avenge bin Laden's death is likely to come from Yemen, and it's probably already in the pipeline.

Prof. HOFFMAN: I think in very few instances, our image that bin Laden's dead now, people are scrambling to put motion in attack probably isn't all that likely. I think the more professional terrorists already have the plans, now they're going to move to implement them or effect them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida has called on affiliates do its dirty work in the past. In 2002, when bin Laden and Zawahiri were hiding in Afghanistan during U.S. invasion, they asked affiliates to launch attacks. 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.

Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer (Director, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point): I am Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sawyer says the U.S. is already bracing for what will come next.

Lt. Col. SAWYER: The attack may not be tomorrow. It may not be the next day. But it is almost certain that there will be a retaliatory attack. And so, we need to maintain our vigilance against that and not let our guard down a week after the death has passed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which begs the question: If al-Qaida still has the ability to strike the U.S., how much does bin Laden's death really matter?

Again, West Point's Reid Sawyer.

Lt. Col. SAWYER: It's a little too early to tell what his death is going to mean to the organization in the long run. Al-Qaida always has been and will remain a very much of a decentralized phenomenon. It is an organization that has lived for 24 years and has gone through several mutations. And the question now before us is what is this next mutation and what will it look like into the future?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sawyer says if bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan eight years ago, al-Qaida might well have died then and there. Now it's diversified enough it could weather bin Laden's death and hardly miss a beat.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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