One year after death of Osama bin Laden, what next for al-Qa'ida?

The network Bin Laden led may be fragmented – but it has not been eliminated. In the first of two special reports, Patrick Cockburn analyses the power it can still wield across the world

A year after Osama bin Laden was killed, how relevant is al-Qa'ida? In the decade since 9/11 Bin Laden was always a symbol rather than an operational commander. His death did not do much to disrupt the group as an organisation. Occasional recordings of his voice that surfaced over the years contained no new ideas and were primarily a way for al-Qa'ida to show that he was still alive. In death such a symbolic but inactive leader can exercise as much influence as when he lived, so his killing by US commandos has not inflicted fatal damage to his organisation.

Yet his death was very important, less because of its impact on al-Qa'ida than because of Bin Laden's unique position in American demonology after 9/11. It is difficult to think of anybody else in US history with the same Satanic status.

President Barack Obama trumpets as one of his main achievements his administration's success in tracking Bin Laden down and eliminating him. With him dead, it became easier for the White House to proceed with the withdrawal from Afghanistan where the presence of a few hundred al-Qa'ida fighters was used to justify the presence of 90,000 US soldiers. The shock to Americans of the 9/11 attacks may be diminishing but it is still there. As a result, any act by al-Qa'ida will go on having an impact out of all proportion to its size or capacity in future just as it had done over the last decade.

No US administration can afford to be seen by American voters as derelict in pursuing al-Qa'ida whenever it shows the slightest signs of life. Few Americans pay attention to the turmoil in Yemen, but any stirring there by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), head-quartered there, attracts immediate official and media attention. It was from Yemen that two botched plots, the underpants bomber and explosives packed inside ink cartridges, were launched. Both failed but, as an al-Qa'ida statement pointed out, these failures were a success in grabbing the attention of the world.

Aside from the killing of Bin Laden, have the Arab Spring uprisings and protests over the last year knocked away one of al-Qa'ida's main ideological justifications? This was that dictatorships in the Muslim world could not be peacefully overthrown and the priority was to attack the US as their chief sponsor. In 1998, claiming that the US had declared war on God and his messenger, Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian second in command, called for the murder of Americans anywhere in the world as the "individual duty for every Muslim". This made limited impact at the time, but did resonate in the Muslim world after President George W Bush intervened militarily in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

It is a bit glib to imagine al-Qa'ida becoming a back number in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamic and secular opponents combined their efforts to overthrow police states. But the belief that Islamic fundamentalism is passé may be exaggerated. Firstly, al-Qa'ida was always a small minority and was never planning to run for election. It will not go out of business because there are other effective methods of agitation, though its appeal may be more limited. The Israeli conflict with the Palestinians festers, as the US makes no effective efforts to restrict Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and may soon explode. The political temperature of the whole region is rising and this cannot be to the disadvantage of al-Qa'ida.

Islamic militants in eastern Libya, once a recruiting ground for al-Qa'ida suicide bombers going to Iraq, were last year closely cooperating with Nato to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. They included such leaders as Abdelhakim Belhadj, former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was notoriously handed over to Gaddafi's torturers by MI6 and the CIA. Such people are now publicly distancing themselves from al-Qa'ida. Likewise in Egypt the Salafists, hardliners who used to denounce democracy as un-Islamic, run successfully for parliament, are seeking to broaden their appeal, and last weekend surprisingly adopted a liberal former Muslim Brother as their presidential candidate.

But all the news is not bad for al-Qa'ida because tightly run police states have collapsed across the region. There is room for small groups of militants to organise without being under constant pressure of state security forces. Whatever happens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria over the next year, the states there will be weaker than before. Moreover, the near civil wars in Syria and Yemen are not over. Al-Qa'ida guerrilla fighters seasoned in Iraq are now making their way to Syria – according to the CIA – and have started launching suicide bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo.

There are two other reasons why al-Qa'ida has survived the death of Bin Laden and other leaders over the last year. US security officials speak of it as if it was structured like the Pentagon with ranking officers whose killing by drones or death squads would disrupt the organisation. It was always much more ramshackle than this. Few of the al-Qa'ida militants killed over the last year are irreplaceable, an exception being perhaps Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. An intelligent, eloquent English-speaking fundamentalist, and one of the few effective al-Qa'ida propagandists he was killed by a US drone on 30 September last year.

A further reason is that its most powerful elements have always been franchisees not under the control of any core group. This was true of al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which, starting in 2003, became a lethally effective organisation in Iraq until much of the Sunni community turned against it. It still has the capacity to bomb Shia civilians and, though it may be weaker, it is far from being eradicated.

But al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia was always distinct from the core group of leaders around Bin Laden. From the beginning it focussed primarily on a sectarian war against the Shia targeting day labourers in the markets, pilgrims and worshippers leaving mosques. For all their ferocity, al-Qa'ida suicide bombers infrequently attacked US troops in the years before the US final withdrawal. Similarly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, where the core of al-Qa'ida is supposedly based, there are plenty of people who have experience in guerrilla warfare. Hatred of foreigners and infidels of all sorts is a Pashtun tradition. A kidnapped British aid worker, Khalil Rasjed Dale, was killed there at the week-end. But the local Pakistani Taliban, periodic allies of al-Qa'ida, are involved in their own struggles and closely monitored by Pakistani and foreign intelligence services.

As a base, Yemen has the advantage of being a mosaic of different power centres and with a weak central state. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now removed from power, used to play an elaborate game with the US whereby he would present himself as America's loyal ally against al-Qa'ida, offering even to take responsibility for their drone attacks. But this also gave him an incentive to make sure that AQAP was never destroyed. Unlike Iraq, AQAP has tried to launch attacks on the US, which might just have succeeded. It controls much of Abyan province east of Aden and made a show of strength in the last few days by arranging to release 73 government soldiers it had captured.

A problem for al-Qa'ida is that being associated with the organisation in any way immediately creates a host of enemies. In 2003-4, when al-Qa'ida grew in strength in Iraq, it brought in money and foreign suicide bombers. Today it brings few resources to embattled groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia. The same is true of al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM) which operates in the wastes of the Sahara, kidnapping foreigners but whose motives are largely criminal.

Weakened though it may be, al-Qa'ida will not fade from the headlines. This is partly because headline writers have got used to its existence as a universal bogeyman. The "war against al-Qa'ida" since 9/11 has also produced self-declared experts, think-tanks, intelligence officers and army generals who all have budgets to defend. They are never likely to declare the al-Qa'ida threat over, while emphasising, as one counter-terrorism expert said, that "we've made progress towards defeating al-Qa'ida the organisation".

US counter-terrorism and intelligence officers say that al-Qa'ida could never again carry out an onslaught as devastating as 9/11. They may well be right. On the other hand, the very length of time it took for the US to find Bin Laden and his family, though they had been living in the same house for years, may show that their own level of competence, in contrast to their numbers and budgets, has not improved much since the World Trade Centre was destroyed.

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