How Will Terrorism Evolve After Bin Laden?Alexander Gallo and Scott Helfstein
The fall of the Soviet Union presented a major strategic challenge to the United States. Accustomed to preparing for the singular problem posed by the Soviet Union, the United States suddenly had to grapple with asymmetrical, transnational, and decentralized threats. Osama bin Laden’s death poses a similar test for Washington. The disappearance of this central leader will fragment terrorist groups and destabilize their ranks, producing instability that may spur further violence against U.S. interests. Washington’s response to bin Laden’s death will define how the United States will adjust to this new reality -- whether it will sustain its war against terrorist networks, and, if so, which tools it will use to succeed.
Just as the Soviet Union represented an easily identifiable symbol and threat for the United States during the Cold War, bin Laden became a focal point for U.S. counterterrorism strategy after 9/11. Although he attempted to ensure that al Qaeda would transcend him, his charisma and popularity made him the organization’s center of gravity -- offering ideological leadership as well as operational guidance. His clout allowed al Qaeda to cast itself as the vanguard jihadist group, drawing previously local and regional struggles under its global umbrella and inducing such militants to reorient their struggles toward the United States and its allies.
Without bin Laden, these local and regional groups will likely splinter. This may produce something of a Wild West climate, in which groups claiming to operate under al Qaeda’s banner launch attacks without having any formal connection to or approval from al Qaeda’s leadership. Franchises such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may bypass the central organization and form independent ties. These organizations may also turn away from global jihad and refocus on their original local missions.
Al Qaeda, in other words, may crumble as a result of bin Laden’s death. Yet the organization and other jihadi groups could also use this moment as an opportunity to remake themselves. The decentralization of Islamist terrorism will amplify the already existing challenges facing U.S. counterterrorism policy, especially given the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasingly scarce resources.