In the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s capture and death in May 2011, the terrorist organization he led swore that jubilation in the White House would soon be “replaced by sorrow and blood.”
Days later, jihadist websites posted news of “a curse that hunts Americans and their collaborators and chases them outside and inside their country.”
This threat sounded very much like a fatwa from Al Qaeda itself — a kind of modern-day version of the ancient curse that supposedly befell the desecrators of ancient royal tombs in Egypt, the homeland of Al Qaeda’s new maximum leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.” This is the wording of a curse anecdotally reported to have been found above the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922 by Howard Carter and his wealthy English patron, the Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon died very soon afterwards — of a mosquito bite (swift wings).
Osama Bin Laden was a kind of modern pharaoh, the King of Terror. SEAL Team Six disturbed his sleep in a major way, then sent him to the bottom of the Arabian Sea where he could sleep for eternity.
To the surprise of analysts in global intelligence agencies on both side of the Atlantic, a ten-paragraph confirmation of Osama’s death was also released, apparently closing the door to an option many believed Al Qaeda would likely have kept open for years: Preservation of the belief that Bin Laden was still alive, that SEAL Team Six had killed the wrong man, and that the great Osama Bin Laden would lead his warriors to supreme victory again at some time in the future.
And now the 36-month anniversary of OBL’s death is only a few months away, his three-year anniversary.
What does Al Qaeda’s report card say about avenging OBL’s death? How successful has Ayman al-Zawahiri been in establishing his “street cred” as a jihadist who can deliver devastating payback for the killing the most famous terrorist of our time? And what has the new senior management of Al Qaeda, the boardroom directors of global terror, done to keep jihadist momentum going in the wake of the spectacular takedown of the Pharaoh of Jihad, Osama Bin Laden?
At various times since OBL’s death in Abbottabad, red alerts have been sounded in Washington and elsewhere concerning potential new attacks that were thought to be strategically significant, very big, usually based on intercepted communications, “chatter” lifted from the ether by the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade.
Last August, for example, senior U.S. anti-terror officials expressed “concern about devices that could be implanted inside the body of a terrorist… surgically implanted devices that have been developed to defeat out detection methods.”
In the wake of such reports, the Department of State has occasionally closed embassies or evacuated non-essential personnel from trouble spots overseas in an effort to mitigate potential terror attacks.
But, by and large, the terror scene has been one of apathy and quietude. How many men surround the fugitive Ayman al-Zawahiri in his hideaway in the tribal wilderness of Pakistan? Are they a significant force?
Many believe that the core Al Qaeda group consists of as few as a hundred desperate and hunted men, men whose eyes drift skyward where modern, mechanical birds of prey hunt them down remorselessly. Drones have killed thousands of terrorists in Pakistan, and perhaps thousands more of innocents as collateral damage.
Even before OBL’s death, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence noted “progress in Muslim opinion turning against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.” Certainly, there is no nation on the planet that is remotely likely to become governed by Al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri himself is more concerned with failing organizational cohesion within his top brass, and the risk of his capture or death. Publishing vituperative and crazy-sounding video threats, which he continues to do sporadically, is not the same as actually carrying out punishing attacks.
It is not surprising then that so many cautious senior intelligence professionals think that Al Qaeda has been defanged. Not that terrorism has been defeated, which is a different question. There are groups besides Al Qaeda that need concern us. But Al Qaeda is not the formidable organization that it once was. Maybe OBL was not easy to replace?
There is a new kind of terrorism in the world, a more intelligent kind of modern terrorism, the kind that cuts deals with those in power in order to find a place at the table. How does that work?
Some years ago Hamas was forced to reply to a very nasty attack from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had accused Hamas of “joining the surrender train” by agreeing to take part in supervised elections which might eventually result in a unity government, where former terrorists would actually have a say in the halls of power.
Hamas had it right when it responded to Al-Zawahiri with the comment that the group had little need for advice from “a fugitive in the Afghan mountains” who likely “did not know what was going on.”
At some point terrorists need to decide whether they want to blow people up or actually govern. And that is a threshold that Al Qaeda leaders have not crossed, and perhaps cannot cross because they have alienated themselves from so many of their fellow human beings.
That truth may prove to be a death warrant not only for Ayman al-Zawahiri, but for the Al Qaeda organization itself.