Al Qaeda Without Bin Laden

How Terrorists Cope With their Leader's Death

U.S. President Barack Obama, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Pete Souza (White House) / Reuters

Since 9/11, two schools of thought have emerged about Osama bin Laden’s role in al Qaeda. The first holds that after 2001 he was largely a symbolic and isolated figurehead. The other posits that he was the organization’s key inspirational and ideological leader. Yet the Pentagon’s initial leaks about the information found on the computers confiscated by Navy SEALs during their May 1 raid on bin Laden’s compound strongly suggest that he had attempted a more hands-on approach than both schools assumed -- whether the rest of al Qaeda paid attention is another matter.

On May 6, a U.S. government official told CNN that bin Laden “worked at the operational and even tactical levels. . . . He was clearly issuing directions at all levels.” From his strategically placed compound, with couriers and assistants to help, he was also apparently overseeing the details of a planned attack on U.S. public rail transportation to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Furthermore, the huge trove of computers, storage devices, and cell phones that the Navy SEALs retrieved from his villa shattered the myth that he was isolated thanks to a supposed aversion to electronic devices. Bin Laden was more able to communicate with and direct the broader al Qaeda organization than anyone had realized.

This should not have come as a surprise. Those who argue that bin Laden was completely isolated tended to ignore his public speeches, which he often used to issue orders. In late 2004, he ordered attacks on Western oil supply lines, especially in the Gulf region. In 2006 and again in 2008, he offered instructions for the al Qaeda response to the caricature of Muhammad first published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. In 2007 and 2009, he released statements calling for al Qaeda to send fighters and assistance to Islamists in Somalia. Finally, this January, he released an audio message offering conditions for the release of French hostages that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is still holding. In the coming days, more instructions are

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