FIVE QUESTIONS FOR TERRORISM EXPERT: What Will Happen To Al Qaeda Now That Bin Laden’s Dead?

osama bin laden

Business Insider Politix is launching a new interview feature — we’re calling it “Five Questions” — in which we will talk to leading experts and thinkers about the stories we cover: debt, threats and politics.

For our first interview we talked with terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman about the future of Al Qaeda after bin Laden.  Mr. Hoffman, the director of the centre for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, has been studying terrorism and insurgency for more than 30 years and is one of the leading experts in the U.S.

He is the former director of the RAND Corporation’s Washington, D.C., office, and has served at the CIA as its Scholar-In-Residence for Counterterrorism. He was also an adviser on counterterrorism to the Office of National Security Affairs, Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and an adviser on counterinsurgency to Multi-National Forces headquarters in Iraq. Here’s what he has to say about the post-bin Laden Al Qaeda threat.

1. How will Osama bin Laden’s death affect the structure of the Al Qaeda network?

Bruce Hoffman: In the near term, not very much. His death was bad for the organisation but Al Qaeda was also already under tremendous stress from the [U.S.] drone program [in Pakistan].

It is assumed that al-Zawahiri — bin Laden’s second-in-command and, I think, Al Qaeda’s strategic leader — will step in and take his place. The Al Qaeda leadership isn’t scrambling – these types of issues were decided long ago. He [bin Laden] was talking about how he wanted to die a martyr more than 20 years ago, he certainly knew who would step in to replace him. Al Qaeda has a very corporate structure – he [bin Laden] always ran Al Qaeda like a business and he had experience with that, running his family’s construction firm. Any corporation has a succession plan, and I would argue that’s even more important for a terrorist organisation.

2.  Do you think we will see the nexus of power start to shift away from Al Qaeda central in the wake of bin Laden’s death? Will Al Qaeda’s affiliates take on a greater role in the jihad movement?

Bruce Hoffman: The main challenge to the Al Qaeda leadership would be from associates and affiliates. Al Qaeda has encouraged these franchises but there is some possibility that one of them – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is really the only one with the capability – could eclipse the central Al Qaeda group. Already, the U.S. has said AQAP is as much, or perhaps even more of threat than Al Qaeda central. Their star has been rising and it may be that it rises higher because bin Laden’s death will put them in the position to carry out more attacks.

Clearly AQAP is the most adept at attempting to internationalize its capabilities, but al-Shahab [an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia], has also tried to expand beyond its geographic base in East Africa. Al Qaeda has a lot of affiliates and associates and they are capable of mobilizing attacks on the areas where they are based.

Understand that this isn’t a breakdown of Al Qaeda’s central leadership. It’s just that the franchises might have greater capacity to carry out attacks and become more important in that sense. For now at least, the organisation’s leadership will continue to be with the core Al Qaeda group in South Asia. The strategy of encouraging their friends and affiliates has always been to take the pressure of Al Qaeda Central and that will be even more important now that bin Laden is gone.

3. What exactly is the relationship between Al Qaeda’s affiliates and the core leadership? Is it likely to change in the absence of a unifying figure like bin Laden?

Bruce Hoffman: I think the relationship is very loose. Al Qaeda recognised that the only way it could survive was by assembling a galaxy of loosely-connected, like-minded terrorist organisations. Al-Zawahiri actually laid it out in 2001. Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner [al-Zawahiri’s treatise] defined Al Qaeda’s strategy of encouraging affiliates and encouraging individuals to take up jihad and carry out their own attacks. He understood that Al Qaeda had to be a loose organisation. The idea of cultivating franchises and radicalizing individuals to incite them to violence is a key part of Al Qaeda’s strategy.

I think the Al Qaeda group’s will unite around bin Laden’s death. In death, as in life, bin Laden will serve as an iconic figure, a martyr for the movement. But understand that that is only the case as long as Al Zawahiri is at large. The loss of Al Zawahiri would be crippling to the movement and would likely result in even more decentralization.

4. Was economically undermining the United States a part of bin Laden’s strategy? If so, how successful was he at achieving this goal?

Bruce Hoffman: A large part of bin Laden’s strategy was trying to disrupt the U.S. economy. Bin Laden said we [Al Qaeda] were looking to economically undermine the United States, in the same way that the mujaheddin in Afghanistan had undermined the Soviet Union. This has been a regular theme for the past decade.

As our economic crisis deepened, this econo-jihad has only intensified. You had Al Qaeda saying they were responsible for the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the credit crisis. It wasn’t necessarily true but it was a theme that started to resonate. In the late 1990s and up until around 2004, no one paid any attention when Al Qaeda said they were bankrupting the United States. But as our economic fortunes have declined, it is a message people believe. That’s the thing with propaganda – it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be something people will believe.

5. How effective do you think the new Al Qaeda leadership will be at executing bin Laden’s strategic vision?

Bruce Hoffman:  A lot of their future success now will depend on if they can successfully execute a major attack in the somewhat near-term future. These attacks take time to plan, but the leadership knows they have to do something soon.

For Al Qaeda, it is kind of a put-up-or-shut-up moment. They have to stage an attack not just to avenge bin Laden’s death but also to show that they are still relevant, as a threat to the U.S. and to the global jihad movement. The question then is not just if they can stage an operation, but if can they do it successfully. If they can’t it will really look like incompetence. Expectations are quite high.