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#3371, 5 May 2011
After Osama - VI: What will be the al Qaeda’s Game Plan?
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS
email: subachandran@gmail.com

What will be the game plan of the al Qaeda now? The primary issue is not who will take over the reins of the al Qaeda, now that Osama is dead, but how they will seek to respond.

Succession is unlikely to be an issue. There appears a hierarchy within the al Qaeda, and Zawahiri will probably become the next leader until such time as a drone attack that will take his life or a special operation, as it happened in Abbotobad. He is also likely to be in Pakistan, and possibly be eliminated soon.

Rhetorically, the al Qaeda may have already announced that there will be dire consequences. These threats are undoubtedly significant, but their target may not be focused on mainland US alone. Rather, the al Qaeda will focus on soft targets all over the world, as happened in Madrid, Jakarta and Bali.

Symbols of the US and of western presence are likely to be the primary targets in the near future. Many countries in Europe and in the Muslim world are considered to pro-US, and worse, American stooges. From Spain to Australia, there are numerous countries where security measures against terrorism are still in a nascent stage. The remnants of al Qaeda will find it easier to target these countries and warn the US (and the rest of the international community) that their war is not over. Such attacks will remain random and sporadic, and will only reflect the decline of the al Qaeda as a major terrorist organization.

But what will happen to the al Qaeda as an organization? Will it disappear, as the LTTE did after the killing of Prabhakaran? Or will ‘the base’ get re-organized into multiple cells and operate from different places? The second proposition is likely to happen, given the nature of the al Qaeda’s existence so far. It cannot afford to have a unified headquarters and work from a single place and will have to divide itself. Thus the al Qaeda is unlikely to disintegrate; instead, it will divide into smaller groups and cells.

The primary threat will emanate from countries that al Qaeda franchisees maintain a strong presence in. In the last few years, true to its name, the al Qaeda has actually become a ‘base’ for different radical groups and terrorist organzsations in select countries. While the al Qaeda became the spiritual base and a source of inspiration, the real reasons and problems for many groups that owed allegiance to Osama were actually local and national. Al Qaeda for them became a brand name. Radical groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines have their own internal issues and support, in addition to either actual or ideological links with the al Qaeda.

Those from the West are likely to be targeted in the above countries. Bombings, as witnessed in Jakarta and Bali, will become the primary means for al Qaeda remnants and franchisees to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. Though the remnants would prefer to repeat the horror of 9/11 or the 7/7 London attacks, given the nature of intelligence network in countries such as the US and UK, the likelihood of re-witnessing these spectacular attacks that re-defined the nature and reach of terrorism is less. Instead, the focus of al Qaeda remnants are will possibly be on soft targets - tourists, infrastructure and markets.

Besides, there could also be multiple lone attacks, as happened with Shahzad in the New York Times Square bombing attempt. In developed countries in particular, a section of the Muslim youth is yet to be integrated with the mainstream, for various reasons. The bombers of the London attack and Shahzad reflect the sentiments of this group of radicalized youth that feels victimized both as individuals and a collective. More importantly, this section also feels that their religion is under attack, and it is their religious duty to wage a jihad.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but his cause is not. There are two major groups – one, a set of individuals, mostly youth, not necessarily interlinked, and the second, terrorist organizations and radical groups in select countries, which are better organized and perhaps interlinked. For both, Osama has been an inspiration.

The al Qaeda will become an expression of these two groups, rather than being a monolithic organization with a hierarchy. The post 9/11 history of al Qaeda, its franchisees and those who were inspired by it, will support this thesis.

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