|Analysts have debated the extent to which bin Laden, left, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, directed al-Qaeda operations [GALLO/GETTY]
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death is politically momentous for US president Barack Obama - witness the cheering crowds which gathered outside the White House even before his speech on Sunday night.
Its impact on al-Qaeda, though, is harder to measure.
Peter Bergen, an American journalist, said on CNN that bin Laden’s death marked “the end of the war on terror". But many other analysts would disagree: Al-Qaeda, after all, is a very different organisation in 2011 than in 2001, with a new cadre of leaders and a wider range of affiliate groups.
Analysts have long debated the extent to which bin Laden - and his deputy, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri - direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The two men have largely been in hiding since September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, leaving their subordinates to handle many of the group’s day-to-day operations. Affiliate groups, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, already operate with relatively little direction from the “leadership” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“It is often assumed that their principal roles, particularly in bin Laden’s case, are as propaganda leaders or even mere figureheads,” said Barbara Sude, a former CIA al-Qaeda analyst, in a policy paper released last year.
Indeed, a series of younger leaders - some of them now deceased - emerged to play leading roles in the group over the past few years, broadening its leadership. They include Abu al-Yazid; Abu Yahya al-Libi; and Atiyah abd al-Rahman.
If bin Laden is only a figurehead, then one could argue that he has already served his purpose: His ideology and strategy has permeated throughout al-Qaeda, both the central organisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its affiliate groups elsewhere.
“This is an enormous blow to the jihadi network in multiple ways, but it does not kill al-Qaeda,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorist Radicalisation at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The jihadi group possesses other leaders who can step in to serve as figureheads for the group.”
Bin Laden’s death, in other words - while symbolically significant - may mean little for al-Qaeda’s capabilities.
'Catastrophic if it is authentic'
Reaction from al-Qaeda and its sympathisers has so far been muted. The group’s propaganda wing has not yet issued a video tribute to bin Laden, nor has it commented on the reports of his death.
On internet forums sympathetic to al-Qaeda, a majority of commentators seem shocked by the reports of bin Laden’s death.
In the past, when US officials announced the death of high-ranking al-Qaeda members, commentators often rejected those reports out of hand. But the latest announcement by Obama, on the other hand, seems to be viewed as somewhat more credible.
“If it is true then we must thank Allah that America was not able to capture him alive,” one commentator wrote. “Else they would be humiliating him like Saddam Hussein.”
“God willing, news is not true. Catastrophic if it is authentic,” another wrote.
The US state department issued a worldwide travel alert for American citizens, and the US military increased its “force protection” level, which measures threats to military bases. A senior administration official said there were no specific threats reported, though.
'No other country was informed'
One pressing question is what bin Laden’s death means for the already strained US-Pakistani relationship. The two countries have clashed publicly in recent months over US drone strikes in northwest Pakistan and over the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor arrested for murder in Lahore and then released after “blood money” was paid to the families of his victims.
Obama had in the past praised the Pakistani government for its co-operation in the hunt for bin Laden. And some officials in the ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency, reportedly played a role in his eventual killing, according to media reports.
But the White House quickly rejected that claim: In a conference call on Sunday night, a senior administration official told reporters that Pakistan was not briefed in advance on the operation which led to bin Laden’s death.
“An operation like this has the utmost operational security attached to it,” the official said. “No other country was informed, and a small circle of people within the United States knew about it.”
Obama, in offering praise for Pakistan, also seemed to admonish the country’s leadership, calling it “essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al-Qaeda". Other administration officials went further, describing bin Laden’s long hideout in Pakistan as a cause for concern and a potential source of friction in the relationship.
“We are very concerned about the situation in Pakistan… but this is something we need to work with the Pakistani government on,” a senior official said.
Also unclear is whether bin Laden’s death will have any impact on the war in Afghanistan, now in its tenth year. Obama did not mention any changes to strategy during his speech; bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; and US officials admit that only a handful of al-Qaeda members remain in Afghanistan.
In other words, the war - started to punish the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks - may well outlast the architect of those attacks.