When SEAL Team Six stormed Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1 and killed the leader of al Qaeda, few believed his death would bring an immediate end to the war on terror. It was widely accepted, however, that it was a hammer blow to the organization the US in particular had been attempting to smash for almost two decades.
It was not only the killing of the man held responsible for the atrocities of September 11, 2001 and many other acts of terrorism around the globe that the US hoped would shake al Qaeda to its core. As a result of the raid on bin Laden's heavily fortified compound, the US allegedly came into possession of highly sensitive and revealing al Qaeda documents and correspondence that had been stored on bin Laden's computers.
Described by Pentagon sources who received the hard drives and DVDs recovered in the raid as "the motherlode of information," speculation quickly began to spread over what details of the al Qaeda network bin Laden was in possession of at the time of his death. While the translation of the Arabic material into English was expected to take weeks, the cache was quickly heralded as a major breakthrough in the fight against al Qaeda.
In the three months or so since bin Laden was killed, a number of US missions targeting al Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, as well as drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, have added credibility to the suggestions that the bin Laden files have given US counter-terrorism efforts a huge boost.
"It is certainly my hope that US and allied forces managed to 'cash in' on the information retrieved, before the discovery and seizure of the 'treasure trove' from bin Laden's compound was made public," Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president at George Washington University in Washington and a former special assistant to the president for homeland security, told Deutsche Welle.
"Though we can't say with certainty that recent successes are directly attributable to this trove of information, there has been significant momentum, and I would hope that these victories continue."
"The killing of bin Laden, though certainly a victory for US forces over al Qaeda, is more a tactical win for the good guys - netting a high-value target, gathering new intelligence, and gaining public support for what our special operators are doing - than it is strategically 'hobbling' the terrorist organization," W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former US Marine and an expert on international terrorism and counterterrorism, told Deutsche Welle.
US officials confidently announce gains
At the end of June, Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan claimed that al Qaeda had been decimated in the last two-and-a-half years, telling a press conference that half of al Qaeda's top leadership "has been eliminated."
"Virtually every major" affiliate of the militant network founded by bin Laden had "lost its key leader or operational commander," Brennan said, including those of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in East Africa and the Pakistani Taliban.
Brennan pointed to the shooting of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of al Qaeda's bombing of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, at an army checkpoint in Somalia on June 12, and the killing of Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior Pakistani operative and potential successor to bin Laden, in a drone attack in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan as evidence.
Brennan's speech came just two weeks after an al Qaeda-affiliated web site announced the promotion of the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri – Osama bin Laden's deputy –– to the leadership.
Reports circulating at the time suggested that the promotion of al-Zawahiri was delayed due to a number of senior commanders failing to come out of hiding to vote. It was suggested that these commanders were under such pressure from the tightening noose of US search teams that surfacing from their hideouts would have meant certain death.
Al Qaeda leadership allegedly fearful of US crackdown
"It is indeed possible that al Qaeda's leadership and commanders failed to convene for the stated reasons - fear being a powerful motivator of action and inaction," said Frank Cilluffo. "We ought to continue to pursue attempts to disaggregate and drive wedges between and among al Qaeda, its affiliates and other jihadist organizations that share al Qaeda's intentions."
Figures which claim that 20 out of the top 30 al Qaeda members identified by US intelligence agencies had been eliminated in the past 18 months by US drones in the Pakistan border area seem to give credence to their fears.
Even bin Laden himself is alleged to have expressed concern in the captured files that al Qaeda had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that have been killed. Some terrorist experts estimate that the upper echelon of al Qaeda's original leadership in the Pakistani badlands may be no more than a dozen strong.
US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who took over from predecessor Robert Gates on July 1, wasted no time in heralding his country's recent counterterrorism efforts by saying that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda" during a visit to Afghanistan over the weekend.
All of this, as well as last week's announced capture of a "key interlocutor" between Somalia's Shabaab Islamist insurgency and AQAP, seems to support the belief that the US war against al Qaeda, while by no means over, could be entering its end game.
However, it is still not known exactly what was on bin Laden's hard drives and conflicting reports surfacing in the wake of his death over his role and level of control at the time of his death have added a new level of doubt over how "decimated" al Qaeda may be.
Reports of al Qaeda's demise somewhat exaggerated
"Bin Laden was no mere figurehead," said Frank Cilluffo. "While it is still unclear what operational role he played in recent years, he clearly did provide the equivalent to al Qaeda of what is referred to in western military doctrine as commander's intent."
"The Confrontation between the West in general and the US in particular on the one hand and al Qaeda and its Jihadi allies on the other hand, cannot be simply measured by the number of al Qaeda operatives taken out by security operations," says Walid Phares, advisor to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus of the US Congress, told Deutsche Welle.
"From a tactical perspective, eliminating bin Laden or other al Qaeda commanders in various places, can be coined as successes for US special operations," he added.
Still, US and Western strategies don't focus enough on counter radicalization and counter ideology efforts, said Phares. "Thus while intelligence and counterterrorism efforts are successful against al Qaeda's rank and file, the strategic policies of the Obama administration against al Qaeda and its constellation of Jihadi networks aren't actually winning the global confrontation."
Chris Carter, a regional director with the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team, agrees that the fight is far from over. "The threat from al Qaeda will never be truly eradicated as you can't kill an ideology," he told Deutsche Welle. "But a more effective military campaign, accompanied by a political resolve to defeat the Islamist threat, would further weaken al Qaeda and discourage other groups and individuals from joining the fight."
"The al Qaeda organization and infrastructure – being that it is a vast international network of jihadist cells as opposed to a jihadist army – is such that it is able to absorb such a loss and regroup much quicker than say the loss of a leader in a jihadist army like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps," concluded W. Thomas Smith Jr. "Al Qaeda is still an extremely dangerous global terrorist organization."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Michael Knigge