KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghans in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan described Osama bin Laden as al Qaeda’s “number one martyr” after the leader of the hardline group was killed in neighboring Pakistan.
Bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, was killed in a gunfight with U.S. forces in a luxurious palace north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Sunday, officials said.
“Now he is the number one martyr for al Qaeda because he is stronger dead than alive,” one man, who asked not to be identified, said on Monday in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
“He always predicted that he would be killed by Americans. Now he will become a fire that Muslims will follow for generations,” said the heavily bearded man.
Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and is believed to be where al Qaeda hatched the plan to attack U.S. cities almost 10 years ago.
The Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in the months after the September 11 attacks but the war has dragged on since, hitting its most violent levels in 2010.
“Bin Laden’s death doesn’t matter because al Qaeda is more than him and it’s a big idea now,” another Kandahar man said.
Some Afghan officials also said bin Laden’s influence would continue and believed the militant network would try to avenge his death.
“His death will bring about positive changes for the moment but for the future, it will intensify fighting in Afghanistan because al Qaeda will seek revenge,” Ahmad Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Reuters.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced late on Sunday in Washington that bin Laden had been killed.
Ahmad Wali Karzai is also the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and is one of the most powerful men in southern Afghanistan.
Kandahar was the spiritual seat of power for reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar before the group’s leaders were driven across the border into Pakistan.
While al Qaeda’s influence in Afghanistan has waned, the Taliban-led insurgency has grown. Violence in Afghanistan hit its worst levels in 2010 since the Taliban were ousted, despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops.
The Taliban announced at the weekend the start of a new “spring offensive” that would target foreign and Afghan troops as well as Afghan government officials.
Reporting by Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait and Miral Fahmy