The killing of Osama bin Laden has opened the door to a flood of speculation as to the future of al Qaeda, its regional affiliates, and the jihadi religio-political trend that it represents. The short answer is that his death, while an undoubtedly significant symbolic loss for al Qaeda, does not spell the end of the transnational jihadi trend. It’s critical not to exaggerate bin Laden’s importance, either operationally or symbolically, while still recognizing the importance of his killing.
The young men and women who join al Qaeda and other Muslim militant organizations, though they may view bin Laden as the heroic public face of the jihadi trend, join for an array of reasons. In their “martyrdom” wills, which are either filmed or written, these young people report a long list of grievances that include the US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of civilians in drone and other US military strikes, Western support for Arab and Muslim autocratic regimes, torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the “dishonoring” of Muslims around the world.
It is true that the so-called “Arab Spring” has been a significant setback for al Qaeda and its affiliates, though much will depend on how the US and European governments respond. The continued violence and turmoil in Libya, Syria, Yemen and to a lesser extent Bahrain also plays into al Qaeda’s claim that violence is the answer.
Non-Arab jihadi groups, and al Qaeda’s regional affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, and Iraq, are also likely to be less affected by bin Laden’s death. In recent years, al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan has become increasingly reliant on the military strength of regional allies such as the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Each of these allies has an independent organizational structure and operates independently, though sometimes in alliance with, al Qaeda.
The Afghan Taliban and the TTP also have a range of regional goals that bin Laden’s death does not change, at least for the time being. Chief among these are the continued US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and the extensive US military campaign in Pakistan that is believed to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani civilians in air strikes.
Even within the original al Qaeda bin Laden has probably not played a central operational role for many years, though he remained an influential voice and symbol. The organization has cultivated a new set of charismatic leaders such as Abu Yahya al-Libi and ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi who will likely serve as capable new voices of militancy for al Qaeda and others for some time to come—as long as the list of grievances exists, anyway.