Osama bin Laden speaking.

May 07, 2011

Al Qaeda Speaks: Statement Confirms Osama Bin Laden's Death

Al Qaeda Central’s initial rhetorical response to the killing of Osama bin Laden has several aims: to shore-up the group’s morale, call for continued violence against its declared enemies, and, most importantly, to show uninterrupted leadership in its “global jihad” following the death of the symbol of that movement.

The message, released onto militant Islamist websites on May 6, was signed by the “General Command” of “Qaedat al-Jihad Organization” and dated May 3, the day after the death of bin Laden.[1] The four-page statement was at the same time a eulogy, a threat, and a rallying cry:

Soon … their happiness will turn into sorrow, and their blood will be mixed with their tears.

The message reserves a special call to the Pakistani public, whom it urges to topple the government it blames for enabling bin Laden’s death:

We call upon our Muslim people in Pakistan, on whose land Sheikh Usama was killed, to rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves who sold everything to the enemies of the Ummah, and disregarded the feelings of this noble jihadi people. [We call upon them] to rise up strongly and in general to cleanse their country (Pakistan) from the filth of the Americans who spread corruption in it.

Despite the successful elimination of bin Laden, the actual risks behind al Qaeda’s threat remain serious. Al Qaeda and the threat it poses to the U.S. and Western interests as a network is bigger than Osama bin Laden, and the group proclaims as much in its statement:

But can the Americans, with their media, agents, machinery, soldiers, intelligence and agencies kill that for which Sheikh Usama lived and that for which he was killed? No way, no way. Sheikh Usama did not build an organization that would die with his death and go away with his departure.

The al Qaeda network has been largely independent of bin Laden for some time now, though there are some indications that he may have been involved in some operational planning.  While his death is a great moral and symbolic victory, the al Qaeda network’s capacity in the near term remains undiminished. Its associated networks, proxies, and franchises have, in some cases, been growing in strength. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network.”[2] Lashkar-e-Taiba has been increasingly integrated with al Qaeda and is stronger than ever, and the Haqqani network, while suffering setbacks in Afghanistan as a result of intensive NATO ISAF operations and drone attacks in Pakistan, is still managing to expand its operational territory.[3] Several al Qaeda network groups, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, have threatened revenge attacks for bin Laden’s death.[4] Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan was still plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland, as intelligence seized from bin Laden’s compound has revealed, and Western targets in Europe.[5]

The statement also presents an opportunity for al Qaeda to introduce the new face of its leadership following bin Laden’s demise. If the dating on the statement is accurate, it was produced too soon after bin Laden’s death for it to be the consensual statement of a conclave of senior al Qaeda leaders, most of whom would almost certainly go into deeper hiding after hearing of such a precise and successful raid rather than gather in one place to discuss media releases. The statement was either prepared beforehand or, more likely, is the product of a single senior leader speaking, with authority or without, on behalf of the larger organization.

Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top deputy, is next in the natural order of succession for the leadership of al Qaeda. While it is too soon to say with any certainty, this may the initial transition towards his assumption of leadership.[6] The statement also makes mention that bin Laden had recorded an audio tape one week prior to his death and that the tape would soon be released. The network is not done talking and its next message may clarify the future of its leadership.

If there is one take away from all of this, it is that bin Laden’s death has not silenced the network (nor, apparently, bin Laden himself), nor has it reduced al Qaeda’s desire to strike out at the U.S. and its interests. The statement is crafted to shore up the morale of the group and its supporters, and signal that there is still a functional, collected, and coherent leadership operating despite the death of bin Laden. There is no evidence yet to make us doubt that that is the case. There is ample historical evidence that terrorist organizations in general and al Qaeda in particular, are adept at replacing killed or captured senior leadership quickly and seamlessly.[7] Al Qaeda’s initial response to bin Laden’s death should not be viewed as the dying groan of a has-been organization, but rather, it should be a call for continued vigilance against a network and its militant Islamist ideology that is still capable and desirous of causing death and destruction. The fight is not over yet.

[1] “Al-Qaeda confirms death of Usama bin Laden,” SITE Intel Group, May 6, 2011. Available at https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=27562
[2] Tim Lister, “Yemen remains al Qaeda’s ultimate breeding ground,” CNN, April 27, 2011. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/04/26/afghanistan.qaeda.dirty.thirty/index.html
[3] The Haqqani network has, of recent, managed to secure an agreement between warring tribes in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal agency which has allowed it to expand its area of operations northward out of North Waziristan, and closer to the Afghan capital Kabul. For more on this topic, see the upcoming paper by Jeff Dressler and Reza Jan titled “The Haqqani Network in Kurram Agency: The Regional Implications of a Growing Insurgency” to be released on May 9, 2011.
[4] “Pakistani Taliban threaten attacks after bin Laden killing,” Reuters, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2011/05/02/pakistani-taliban-threaten-attacks-after-bin-ladens-killing.html
[7] Fred Kagan, “The Threat to the U.S. Homeland Emanating from Pakistan,” CriticalThreats.org, May 3, 2011. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/frederick-kagan-house-testimony-the-threat-to-the-us-homeland-emanating-from-pakistan-may-3-2011
View Citations