Skip to main content

In this Oct. 7, 2001, file photo made from a video image, Osama bin Laden, left, and his top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, are seen at an undisclosed location.

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden by a CIA-led team in Pakistan, questions are now being raised about the future of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization Mr. bin Laden founded in the late 1980s. Al-Qaeda is the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as well as other international terrorist acts. The group's objectives include ridding the Muslim world of foreign intervention, and removing current leadership among Arab countries.

U.S. intelligence officials believe al-Qaeda will have a hard time recovering from Mr. bin Laden's death. Al-Qaeda's core in Pakistan is constantly on the run, hiding from U.S. Predator drones. Communication is slow. The ability to plan, finance and carry out attacks has been greatly reduced.

His heir apparent, Ayman al-Zawahri, is a harsh, divisive figure who lacks the charisma and mystique that bin Laden used to hold together al-Qaeda's various faction

Mr. Al-Zawahri has been running al-Qaida operations for years as bin Laden cut himself off from the outside world. There were no phone or Internet lines running into his compound. And he used a multi-layered courier system to pass messages. It was old-fashioned and safe but it made taking part in any operation practically impossible.

  • From 1996 to 2001, under Mr. bin Laden’s leadership, al-Qaeda operated military training camps in Afghanistan. However, following the U.S. attack on Afghanistan and the downfall of the Taliban regime, the group fled the country for Pakistan’s tribal areas. Elements of al-Qaeda's leadership structure are said to have remained in Afghanistan, where spikes of violence in late 2006 have been attributed to the terrorist group. In recent years, though, many of al-Qaeda’s key figures have been on the run, significantly depleting the organization’s leadership.
  • Although often discussed as an entity, al-Qaeda is a loose network of groups that aligns itself with the objectives of a global jihad, a broad Islamic concept that encompasses everything from the struggle to improve the quality of Muslim life to self-defense against Western imperialism. The exact definition is loose and debated even among Muslims.
  • Al-Qaeda’s primary membership consists of Mujahideen, the plural of “mujahid,” a Muslim fighter that acts on behalf of Islam.
  • The group has never followed a traditional, pyramid-shaped hierarchy of power, operating instead as a network where key figures of command are often difficult to identify. Al-Qaeda’s network includes cells in various countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Communication among the organization’s vast network occurs mostly through a web of information committees and close ties to groups responsible for planning attacks. Messages from external groups to the core are filtered through al-Qaeda’s second-tier leadership, which briefed Mr. bin Laden and second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri if the operation is especially urgent. This second-tier leadership is integral to the organization; so much so that the death of Mr. bin Laden or Mr. al-Zawahri may not be detrimental to the co-ordination and unity of al-Qaeda.
  • Following news of Mr. bin Laden’s death, Mr. al-Zawahri, an Egyptian-born doctor and surgeon, is set to lead the organization.
  • Even if the U.S. manages to find and kill Mr. al-Zawahri, whose last-known sighting was in Peshawar in 2003, it won't mean the end of al-Qaeda. Like Hamas and Hezbollah who have seen their leaders eliminated, al-Qaeda will probably continue to exist, terrorism experts say.