Bin Laden's Legacy

Al-Qaida has become decentralized and its senior members have scattered in various places in the world in recent years, but the danger that it will perpetrate a deadly attack has not passed.

NEW YORK - On Tuesday morning this week, just days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the security personnel in Newark airport seemed a bit drowsy. As on every other day, all travelers were asked to remove their shoes (a practice instituted after Al-Qaida member Richard Reid tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes on an American Airlines flight in December 2001 ), and to pass through metal-detectors - ostensibly, devices similar to those that the men who perpetrated the attacks on September 11, 2001, went through.

The killing of the man who became a symbol of extremist Islam in the last decade can definitely be seen as the closing of a circle. That man, who in the mid-1990s made the United States the primary target of the organization he led, was killed in a raid by U.S. commandos almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. But it is also a safe assumption that the assassination of Osama bin Laden last May in Abbottabad, Pakistan, has fueled the desire of his successors (those who are still alive ) to prove that Al-Qaida is still alive even after the death of the person who became its symbol.

bin laden - AP - September 9 2011

Al-Qaida probably does not have the ability to perpetrate mega-attacks rivaling those of 2001. However, there have been reports about the presence in Gaza of activists from the organization, who were formerly based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and about their involvement in attempts to carry out attacks against Israel. It is possible, furthermore, that the mystery surrounding the identity of the terrorists involved in the attack on the Israel-Egypt border three weeks ago is related to this fact.

For Al-Qaida, the September 11 attacks culminated a process led by bin Laden. According to Yoram Schweitzer, director of the Program on Terror and Low Intensity Conflict at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, the process "started in 1998 with the attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and continued with the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. Afterward, [bin Laden] began planning the 9/11 attacks and a lengthy series of other actions."

The problem faced by bin Laden and his organization was that from that critical instant when the planes rammed into the World Trade Center, a target that he himself chose, Al-Qaida became the declared enemy of the world's greatest power. Indeed, the declaration of war on the United States, embodied by that assault, made Al-Qaida the main target of America's security agencies - a mistake on the organization's part for which many of its senior leaders would pay with their lives in the years that followed.

'Precise intelligence'

Last week, The Washington Post ran an article summing up the immense changes in the Central Intelligence Agency since 2001. "Targeted assassinations," as they are known in Israel, have become an almost routine element in CIA activities, the paper reported. The agency is investing ever larger resources in collecting intelligence about potential targets - and in carrying out the killings. This involves not only financial investment, but also, and mainly, training and assigning to certain personnel the sole mission of hunting down Al-Qaida targets to arrest or kill them.

After 9/11, the Joint Special Operations Command, originally established in 1980, was completely revamped. The JSOC now focuses mainly on assassinating terror activists (such as Al-Qaida figure Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was reportedly killed last month ) and is responsible for killing hundreds (some say thousands ) of Islamist terrorists. Such missions are carried out not only in locales where the United States operates officially, but also in countries such as Somalia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria and even Syria, according to the Post.

Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, maintains that Al-Qaida's "chain of attacks against the Muslim population in Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia (2003-2005 ) damaged their ability and created counter-reactions in a variety of places. Since 2001, they have been responsible for the death of 35,000 people in Pakistan alone, and they are constantly on the run. On the other side, the United States shifted to a policy of targeted attacks backed up by precise intelligence, and Al-Qaida's spread was curtailed."

According to Katulis, "When the Arab Spring started, they turned out to be irrelevant." Nevertheless, he adds, "They still have attack capability and we can't speak in terms of victory or defeat here. In the same way that the Israelis are now less fearful of suicide attacks, the fear of a mega-attack has also declined. Still, they retain the ability and the truth is that I am surprised that they haven't been able to perpetrate attacks on U.S. soil."

As for the decentralization process undergone by Al-Qaida, Katulis says, "They have a problem maintaining coordination and communication between themselves in every locale. The organization is far less centralistic and structured than it was. It now has to be viewed in terms of different arms - branches that operate separately in a variety of places, receiving franchises, as it were: Maghreb, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere. But they remain dangerous and extremist."

Three stages

Israel Defense Forces Col. (res. ) Gidi Netzer, who has been monitoring world terrorism for many years, dates changes in Al-Qaida to October 2001, during the first American attack in Afghanistan.

"The organization has gone through three stages since then," Netzer says. "First, they tried to entrench themselves in the hills of Tora Bora and the Hindu Kush, in the face of the American invasion. In the second stage, they scattered over quite a few locations: Central Asia, South Asia, Uzbekistan, the Maghreb, north and south Waziristan and elsewhere. But the Americans got to those places, too.

"More or less since 2007," he continues, "we have been witnessing the third stage: A few dozen senior figures in Al-Qaida who've survived have begun to operate as part of smaller terrorist organizations or in armed militias in Afghanistan, Pakistan and more remote places. They establish terrorist camps, acquire weapons and switch to a format of terrorist cells. In this way, for example, they make inroads into Sunni populations in China, the Gaza Strip and other places. But it is no longer an organization: Their 'senior experts' have integrated into a variety of places.

"At present there are between 60 and 80 Al-Qaida operatives who have dispersed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaida's command systems have been dismantled and thousands of the organization's activists have been liquidated: In Iraq alone, nearly 5,000 of them, at all levels of command, were killed. All the rest are scattered in many countries: Sudan, Chad, Libya, Egypt, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and more."

But Metzer is also cautious about declaring that the danger is over. "I have no doubt that their senior people, who are operating all over the world and in some cases enjoying Iranian cooperation, will continue to plan attacks against the soft belly of the population in the free world," he says.