Osama bin Laden’s death is unlikely to herald the collapse of the al Qaeda network. Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is the network’s most active al Qaeda node and is operationally independent of al Qaeda Central. AQAP conducted two successful attacks on the United States since its January 2009 founding and, unlike other al Qaeda-linked plots, the operational planning for these attacks does not have links back into Pakistan’s tribal regions. The prolonged political upheaval in Yemen has already expanded the group’s operating space—Yemen’s counter-terrorism units were redeployed into the capital to protect the president’s interests and tracking of AQAP operatives’ movements has suffered.
The conditions in Yemen will continue to benefit AQAP, as will any of the potential outcomes to the unrest. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the United States’s partner in the fight against AQAP, is currently fighting for his own political survival. The recommencement of counterterrorism operations, which had been conducted sporadically prior to the unrest, is likely to be delayed in any scenario, whether it be a negotiated transition of power, military coup, or even a stalemate. The most likely result in Yemen is that AQAP will consolidate its network in areas under its control and will take advantage of Saleh’s and the United States’s distraction to conduct operations within the Arabian Peninsula, and also against Western targets.
It is unclear what impact the removal of al Qaeda’s leader will have on the broader al Qaeda network, but there are indications that bin Laden’s death may, in fact, lead to an upsurge in attacks, especially from AQAP. Bin Laden’s approval was previously sought for large-scale operations against the West; sign-off from al Qaeda Central’s leadership may no longer be required. Should bin Laden’s death lower al Qaeda Central’s profile, there may be jockeying within the al Qaeda network for the lead position. AQAP is already poised to assume the lead: it has quickly risen to the top of the network through the successful execution of its attacks on the West and it hosts one of al Qaeda’s top propagandists, American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Yemen’s President Saleh will likely frame himself as the only viable leader in Yemen who can take on AQAP. His hold on power in Yemen will lead to continued unrest, and is unlikely to permit any sustained fight against AQAP. The United States should be wary of confusing bin Laden’s death with the defeat of the al Qaeda network. A first step in Yemen for the United States is a strong counterterrorism partner who is able, and willing, to take on the fight against AQAP.
Katherine Zimmerman is a Critical Threats Project Analyst and Gulf of Aden Team Lead at AEI.