Al-Qaeda After Osama bin Laden

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Washington, DC — The death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden marks a pivotal watershed in the Global War on Terrorism. After ten years, two wars, and countless casualties, Americans and their allies long for closure. Justice has been served, and rightly so. But a lasting peace still needs to be won. As jubilant crowds gather at Ground Zero and the White House to celebrate, three stark realities still remain.

First, bin Laden’s death will transform the war without terminating it. Although al-Qaeda’s central leadership appears to be crippled, the syndicate has spawned regional subsidiaries in Iraq, Northern Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, dozens of indigenous insurgencies have embraced elements of al-Qaeda’s radical Salafi-Jihadi ideology. These movements enjoy a high degree of autonomy. While most of them pursue local rather than global objectives, some will continue to threaten U.S. interests.

Second, the conflict’s centre of gravity has shifted from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen. In recent years, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has eclipsed its superiors in terms of recruiting, propaganda, and military operations. Unlike many other al-Qaeda affiliates, these cadres are integrated into the indigenous society. This unique mixture of global aspirations and local roots makes AQAP a more adaptive, tenacious adversary than its counterparts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Finally, bin Laden’s death presents a vital opportunity to reevaluate our strategy. It is not enough to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat the al-Qaeda network, as President Obama noted. To prevail in the Global War on Terror, we must also discourage indigenous movements from collaborating with the transnational terrorist syndicates that imperil Western interests. This will require a greater willingness to discriminate between our adversaries, together with a better system for prioritizing the threats they pose.