ISLAMABAD: Osama bin Laden’s killing has cost Al-Qaeda its iconic leader, but experts say it will not quash splintered militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where revenge attacks could increase.
The Saudi-born mastermind was the world’s most-wanted man with $25 million on his head — but his death is unlikely to crush the group behind the September 11, 2001 attacks and dozens of Islamist militant spin-off networks.
“Groups allied with Al-Qaeda are expected to react,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on tribal affairs, told AFP.
“They will not let this loss go un-noticed, and their Jihadist allies and Pakistani Taliban will show some reaction by conducting suicide attacks.”
His killing by US forces just two hours’ drive from the capital and 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from an elite military training academy has trapped Pakistan’s military and political establishment between a rock and a hard place.
If militants see Pakistan as complicit in the raid it is likely to invite revenge attacks. Confirming it was not pre-informed would be a humiliating acknowledgement that American troops can act with impunity on sovereign soil.
Pakistan was quick to join the US-led war on terror announced by then president George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and has long complained about the devastating cost in terms of human life.
More than 4,240 people have been killed in bomb attacks blamed on Al-Qaeda-linked militants since July 2007. More than 2,795 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in fighting since 2004. Another 8,671 have been wounded.
Pakistan on Monday massively stepped up security in the capital Islamabad, around sensitive diplomatic installations and around the site of the killing in the garrison town of Abbottabad, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.
In Afghanistan, where the 10-year Taliban insurgency has been seen as largely distinct from Al-Qaeda and precise in its aims of bringing down the government, NATO said its mission would continue.
President Hamid Karzai called on Taliban guerrillas to learn a lesson from bin Laden and stop fighting. Violence is at record levels and the militia at the weekend announced the start of the new fighting season.
Omar Sharifi, an analyst at the American Institute of Afghan Studies, said other than suffering a psychological blow, Al-Qaida’s fighting capacity and affiliate networks in the region would remain almost untouched.
“There’s strong evidence that Al-Qaeda is active in Afghanistan and in close collaboration with the Taliban… we have a lot of Chechen, Arab and Pakistani fighters associated with Al-Qaeda who have been arrested,” he said.
But experts believe bin Laden had become little more than a guiding light for extreme Islamist cells operating across the globe, pointing to the calculating organisational skills of Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri — still at large and believed to be in Pakistan — as the more important target.
US intelligence has described the Egyptian-born Zawahiri, and not bin Laden, as Al-Qaeda’s “intellectual leader” with most of the leaders in Al-Qaeda Egyptian and in his orbit, rather than a Saudi circle sponsored by bin Laden.
Jason Burke, author of a book on Al-Qaeda, warned that the group had already become “increasingly marginal”.
“Al-Qaeda has only ever been one part of the broader phenomenon of contemporary Sunni Muslim Islamic militancy: a phenomenon that has roots that reach back decades if not centuries” in the Islamic world, he said.
With a broader network and groups increasingly fragmented, few believe bin Laden’s death will bring the conflict to a close.
“Al-Qaeda was already weak and this is the biggest loss they face now. But there will be people who will follow bin Laden’s ideology and the war will not end because the issues are not over,” said Yusufzai.
Ben Venzke of US monitoring group IntelCenter warned that large-scale retaliatory strikes were more likely months to a year or more from now.
“The greatest risk is from individuals or small groups that have been radicalised and are not operating under the direct guidance of a significant group,” he said.
“The greatest impact on a group’s structure and ability to maintain its operational tempo are sustained blows to senior leadership and operational ranks,” he said.
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