Confronted with the sudden death of a leader, terrorist groups become cornered animals. When wounded, they lash out. Not only in hopes of surviving, but also to demonstrate their remaining power and continued relevance. Al-Qa`ida is no different. As its statement issued on May 6, 2011 confirming Usama bin Ladin’s death declared, “The soldiers of Islam, groups and individuals, will continue planning without tiredness or boredom, and without despair or surrender, and without weakness or stagnancy, until they cause the disaster that makes children look like the elderly!”
Al-Qa`ida will thus keen for its leader by killing. It will not necessarily attack soon. Yet the United States should brace itself once the 40-day mourning period that some Muslims observe ends. The dual prospect of punishing the United States and re-igniting fear and anxiety following a time of celebration and relief must surely figure prominently in al-Qa`ida’s calculus. This is what happened in Israel 15 years ago.
Past Decapitation Precedents
On January 5, 1996, Israeli agents assassinated Yahya Ayyash, a senior Hamas field commander whose bomb-making skills earned him the sobriquet the “Engineer.” A deceptive quiet then ensued as Hamas licked its wounds and plotted its revenge. Retribution came 40 days later with the first of a series of four bus bombings that continued for two months. By the time the bombings ended, more than 60 people had been killed. This bloody spate of attacks, moreover, is credited with having decisively influenced the outcome of the Israeli general elections that March.
Al-Qa`ida will strive to emulate Hamas’ example in this respect. Its ability to avenge Bin Ladin’s death will likely prove to be a defining moment for the organization. Failure to do so would likely spell the demise that some are now prematurely predicting. For al-Qa`ida, now is the time to “put up or shut up” as the remaining leadership will surely attempt to prove that the movement retains its vitality and viability despite the death of its founder and leader.
In this respect, history unfortunately may be on al-Qa`ida’s side. Decapitation has rarely provided a decisive end to a terrorist movement. During Algeria’s war of independence in the late 1950s, for instance, the French apprehended the National Liberation Front’s (NLF) core leadership cadre. Yet, they found that the FLN was much more networked than had been imagined and therefore resistant to even the decapitation of its entire leadership. As the French counterinsurgency theorist and practitioner par excellence David Galula observed shortly afterward, the “five top leaders of the rebellion, including [Ahmed] Ben Bella, had been neatly caught during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Their capture, I admit, had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.” The FLN, of course, went on to triumph and attain independence for Algeria just four years later.
Similarly, in 2004 the Israelis delivered a seemingly devastating one-two punch against Hamas: killing the equivalent of Bin Ladin and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when they assassinated in succession Shaykh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of Hamas, and then a month later Abdel Aziz Rantisi, his deputy and successor. Yet Hamas is today stronger than it was seven years ago as a new generation of militants continues to prosecute its struggle against Israel.
In 2003, of course, the United States captured Saddam Hussein, and many assumed that the insurgency in Iraq would end. In fact, it continued; indeed, for another four years it escalated.
Admittedly, the killing of the leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq, Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006 was an important setback to al-Qa`ida’s ambitions in Iraq. Yet even that signal American accomplishment did not sound the group’s death knell as it continues to fight today.
Al-Qa`ida’s Response: Scenarios
Given both the less than benign historical record of decapitation’s long-term effects on terrorist organizations coupled with al-Qa`ida’s stated determination to punish the United States, what should Washington prepare for in the near and further-off future in terms of possible scenarios and potential terrorist attacks?
First, there should be concern about planned al-Qa`ida attacks already in the pipeline. Just days before Bin Ladin’s killing, German authorities disrupted a planned al-Qa`ida attack in Berlin. It must be assumed that additional plots are already in motion—or soon will be.
Second, Washington needs to worry about al-Qa`ida harnessing the social networking tools that facilitated the “Arab Spring” to spark a transnational spate of spontaneous terrorist acts. These lower-level incidents would thus preoccupy and distract intelligence agencies in hopes that a spectacular al-Qa`ida attack might avoid detection, succeed and thereby dramatically shatter American complacency.
Third, as the May 6, 2011 al-Qa`ida statement indicates, the group will seek to further strain Pakistan’s relations with the United States. By summoning both its jihadist allies and ordinary citizens there against the Pakistani government, al-Qa`ida will thus hope to undermine Pakistan’s fragile democracy by creating a popular backlash against the United States. The surviving leadership was explicit on this point in the statement acknowledging Bin Ladin’s death. “We call upon our Muslim people in Pakistan,” it declared,
“on whose land Shaykh Usama was killed, to rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves who sold everything to the enemies of the umma [worldwide Muslim community], and disregarded the feelings of this noble jihadi people. We call upon them to rise up strongly and in general to cleanse their country from the filth of the Americans who spread corruption in it.”
Fourth, the possibility of another major Pakistani jihadist attack in India should not be discounted—either encouraged by al-Qa`ida or designed to provide the movement with breathing space at this critical moment in its history. Such an attack along the lines of the 2008 Mumbai incident would prompt a major Indian military reaction. This, in turn, al-Qa`ida would hope, might trigger a broader regional conflict and destabilize the entire region—with attendant profound repercussions on U.S. interests and military operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qa`ida would see in such a scenario an ideal opportunity to regroup and reorganize precisely when the world is distracted by a major escalation of tensions or indeed an armed clash between India and Pakistan.
Finally, al-Qa`ida affiliates like its Yemen franchise, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, will remain largely unaffected by Bin Ladin’s death. They will, however, likely embrace vengeance to further burnish their terrorist credentials as rising stars in the movement’s firmament.
Al-Qa`ida has been compared to the archetypal shark in the water that must keep moving forward—no matter how slowly or incrementally—or die. Whether al-Qa`ida can in fact do so, and thereby prove that it can survive its founder and leader’s demise, is surely the most pressing question of the moment.
Bruce Hoffman is Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.
 David Galula, Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 2006), p. 233.