LONDON (Reuters) - Evading capture will be the overwhelming priority for al Qaeda’s central leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border area after the U.S. seized potentially vital intelligence during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The delicate task of agreeing a replacement for the group’s founder and inspirational figurehead, let alone avenging his death, are challenges that may have to wait.
If and when the 20 or so core commanders feel their physical security has been adequately safeguarded, the group can start to assess bin Laden’s loss, agree on a new chief and renew ties to the group’s allies and affiliates.
The view, from their perspective, will be bleak: Even before bin Laden’s death, mainly peaceful revolts against Arab despots had made al Qaeda’s path of violence seem ever more irrelevant.
“Al Qaeda Central will continue, zombie-like, to wreak havoc, but it will never be the same,” wrote Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar at the Norwegian Defense Research Estalsihgment.
“Bin Laden ... was the driving force of the organization and much has died with him.”
And avenging his death, in the short term, will be a job best delegated to the tiny but passionate global community of al Qaeda sympathizers, counter-terrorism experts say.
But the immediate task will simply be to protect life and liberty, assessing what new dangers have been created by the seizure of intelligence during the raid on bin Laden’s house.
In Washington, a U.S. national security source confirmed forensic specialists were among the U.S. forces who killed bin Laden and large amounts of intelligence was collected.
Leah Farrall, a former senior counter-terrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police, said security would dominate the thinking of al Qaeda’s south Asia-based core in the short term.
“Its leadership will go to ground and close ranks while they try to protect themselves and ascertain the degree of damage to their communications channels and other elements of operational security,” she wrote in a blog.
“Al Qaeda is unlikely to waste operatives on hasty retaliation. It will incite others to do so, but its own efforts will come later.”
U.S. officials said their forces were led to the three-storey building north of Islamabad after more than four years tracking one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, who was identified by men captured after the September 11 attacks.
The courier is likely to have made contacts with the online experts who distribute al Qaeda’s statements to the world, according to U.S. militant propaganda expert Laura Mansfield.
Those contacts may in turn have allowed U.S. spies to track other messengers in contact with other al Qaeda leaders like bin Laden’s deputy, the veteran Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri.
“Al Qaeda core will be even more careful after this,” said Richard Barrett, a United Nations official who monitors al Qaeda and the Taliban.
”If couriers led the U.S. to bin Laden, that leaves few if any safe ways to maintain contact the with outside world.
At the same time, wrote Barrett, al Qaeda knew it had to show relevance at a period of great change in the Arab world.
“The timing is not good for them. They will also need to ensure that they are not left behind by some deal-making with the Pakistanis, or even with the Afghans/US in Afghanistan.”
Even when the situation stabilizes and al Qaeda operatives have managed to shore up their security, the task of agreeing on a successor will strain al Qaeda’s internal politics.
Zawahri is widely expected to assume the leadership, at last on an interim basis, but he is handicapped by a reputation for inflexibility and small-mindedness and is not widely popular.
Author Steve Coll wrote on a New York magazine website that Zawahri had a history of alienating colleagues. ”Bin Laden was a gentle and strong communicator, if somewhat incoherent in his thinking. Zawahiri is dogmatic and argumentative, he wrote.
The London-based intelligence consultancy Exclusive Analysis forecast “a self-destructive battle for succession” within al-Qaeda, which has never had to manage a succession in its top leadership since it was founded in about 1988.
It said the group’s audacious Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was the best placed ally to take over strategic leadership and attack planning after mounting bold and technically sophisticated plots against the West.
Jarrett Brachman, a leading U.S. analyst on al Qaeda who advises the U.S. government, agreed Bin Laden’s death offered an opening now for several men to rise to prominence.
“There are two younger Libyans - Attiyatallah and Abu Yahya al-Libi - who have been positioning themselves to assume the reins. Will the Libyans defer to Zawahiri?” Other potential candidates include Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian former al Qaeda military commander, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the Yemeni AQAP leader and former personal secretary to bin Laden.
Barrett suggested Zawahri was not leader material. “I think Ayman al-Zawhiri will take over the reins in the short term,” he told Reuters. “But I doubt anyone has confidence in his leadership skills, and I imagine others will want the fame, and the gory glory, of running the movement.”
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenbal; Editing by Matthew Jones