When Atiyah Abd al-Rahman disappeared into the blast cloud of a Hellfire missile last month in Pakistan, the target of an apparent CIA drone strike, it confirmed what many counterterrorism experts have long known: Perhaps the least promising job promotion on earth is to be elevated into the top leadership ranks of al-Qaida.
Rahman was considered the organization’s second-in-command, and a close confidant of current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. With the killing of Rahman and the dispatch last May of Osama bin Laden, it’s getting very lonely at the top for Zawahiri and the relatively few remaining “core” al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan.
On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, National Journal asked top U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts to put those al-Qaida losses into context, and to assess the enemy in America’s long “war on terror.” Though opinions vary on some particulars, there was consensus on the fundamental assessment that the core al-Qaida terrorist organization is crippled -- still dangerous and capable of launching terrorist attacks, but almost certainly lacking in the ability to plan and execute strategic “spectaculars” on the order of 9/11.
There was also broad agreement among counterterrorism experts that a successful terrorist attack on the United States or its Western allies is all but inevitable sometime in the future. Barring terrorists acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, however, the experts generally doubted it would prove a 9/11-type game-changer.
According to Andrew Liepman, principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, there are essentially three schools of thought about the future of a post-bin Laden al-Qaida. The first holds that bin Laden was an iconic leader who supplied the essential ideology and vision, and without him al-Qaida is finished. The second school of thought, he said, holds that by the time of his death bin Laden was isolated and largely irrelevant to al-Qaida operations, and thus his death will make little difference.
“I think the truth lies between those poles,” Liepman told National Journal. “Bin Laden’s death is an important milestone in a 10-year battle against a truly evil ideology, and the country and the West are safer for the fact that he is gone. No one else in the organization has his personal credibility and charisma, so his death was a real body blow to an organization that was already struggling and in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, we’ve seen that despite being degraded, al-Qaida has the ability to resuscitate itself. So it would be a big mistake for us to take our eye off of this threat.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said the recent killing of Rahman, coming so close on the heels of bin Laden’s death, will deal a major blow to an already reeling al-Qaida.
“Killing Rahman was big deal because he was the bridge between Zawahiri and core al-Qaida in Pakistan, and its franchises,” Hayden said in an interview. “And given the pace with which we are taking their senior leadership off the battlefield, al-Qaida no longer has a deep bench at all.”
WATCH: Bin Laden hunters reflect on the search:
Losing the Narrative
Bin Laden was probably least expendable to al-Qaida as its visionary and chief propagandist. Just the fact of his surviving the most intense manhunt in history for nearly a decade was part of the group’s powerful mythology. Yet even before his death, polls showed that Muslim support for al-Qaida’s bloody tactics and bin Laden’s vision of a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate was declining dramatically. The Arab world has been far more transfixed by the self-immolation of a lowly Tunisian fruit seller that ignited the Arab Spring democratic uprisings earlier this year, a new narrative that refutes much of what al-Qaida stands for.
“Bin Laden was important as the symbolic leader and 'emir' of al-Qaida, and also because he narrated to his followers who they were fighting, and why. There is no one else in the organization who can assume that communications role in quite the same way,” said Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden. While al-Qaida remains militarily resilient, he said, it has ultimately failed as a broad political movement.
“Instead we’ve seen the revolutions of the Arab Spring launched on very different principles,” said Coll. “So al-Qaida is isolated within the greater Muslim community to a large degree. However, it continues to harbor skilled terrorists determined and willing to sacrifice themselves to carry out bold plots, and small groups of determined fanatics can cause a lot of havoc in the world.”
Given the relentless pressure on al-Qaida’s core group in Pakistan, the future of the organization may lie in more dispersed affiliates that have sprung up in some of the least governed and most violent spaces in the world, fertile ground for its brand of nihilistic extremism. These include al-Qaida in Iraq, an Algerian offshoot operating in North Africa and calling itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the affiliated Islamist militants of al-Shabaab in Somalia.