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Bin Laden's Leadership and the Legacy of Jihad

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
May 6, 2011


Documents and digital data retrieved by U.S. Navy SEALs from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, following his death indicate that he was planning fresh terrorist attacks on the United States despite his relative isolation. They also suggest the al-Qaeda mastermind may still have had an integral role in operational command. Some experts assert the new evidence demonstrates that bin Laden (NYT) was more than just a spiritual and ideological figurehead as previously thought. Much of the intelligence community had assumed that he had entrusted operational authority to his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Bloomberg), amid dogged U.S. efforts to track him down.

Initial evaluation of the information recovered at the Pakistani hideout revealed a plot to attack key U.S. transportation infrastructure--calling for derailing a train and timing the attack to coincide with a major U.S. event such as the tenth anniversary of 9/11. While officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said they "remained in a heightened state of vigilance" (FT), they claim there is no indication of an "imminent threat." Intelligence analysts are still combing through the cache of data for additional clues on future plots as well the inner workings and whereabouts of al-Qaeda leadership. In al-Qaeda's official confirmation of bin Laden's death (WashPost), the leadership vowed retaliatory attacks against the United States and urged Pakistanis to "rise up and revolt."

Some experts claim that while the bin Laden manhunt represents a momentous intelligence success for the United States, the tactical impact on al-Qaeda and the umbrella jihadist movement is negligible. Experts at Stratfor assert that the network's ideological center has migrated to regional groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A counterterrorism expert for the Economist notes that "core" al-Qaeda has evolved into a "kind of consultancy," relinquishing resource-intensive work for strategic and ideological guidance. CFR's Ed Husain contends bin Laden's death will likely be a boon for al-Qaeda and global jihadism, since "al-Qaeda is no longer a mere organization, but a global brand."

However, other analysts say the so-called Arab Spring is a repudiation of a weak al-Qaeda narrative (TIME) that shows that attacking the United State is not necessary to topple despotic regimes. "It is clear that the vast majority of Arabs do not share bin Laden and al-Qaeda's view that the only legitimate authority on earth is God's," writes CFR's Steven A. Cook. "They support the sovereignty of manmade law, so long as it is just."

CFR's Richard Falkenrath says that victory may be short-lived for the United States, noting that the unilateral strike on bin Laden (Foreign Affairs) may mark the "end of the golden years of counterterrorism," a decade where foreign governments cooperated significantly in combating al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of the unauthorized clandestine operation, U.S.-Pakistani relations continued to sour, says CFR's Daniel Markey, threatening to rupture vital bilateral collaboration in the fight against al-Qaeda and the war in Afghanistan.


In this article from Bloomberg, Gilles Dorronsoro writes that the impact of bin Laden's death on global terror and the threat from transnational jihadist groups will be limited.

Bin Laden's killing has led to both elation and anger in Muslim countries around the world, raising questions about what his death means for Arab democracy and stability in Pakistan.

In the New York Times, Ali Soufan discusses the impact of bin Laden's death on the global jihadist movement.


This CFR issue guide provides background and analysis on the foreign policy implications of the death of Osama bin Laden.

Foreign Affairs offers a collection of articles on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

This CFR backgrounder on al-Qaeda offers historical insight into the international terrorist organization behind the September 11 attacks.

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