The killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, the latest blow to Al Qaeda's leadership, is likely to result in a continuation of the decentralization that U.S. officials and experts have already witnessed.
The chief threat was already shifting to Al Qaeda affiliates in other countries such as Yemen when Osama bin Laden was killed last year. The death of Libi, second only to Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, is likely to continue that trend as the rattled central organization tries to replace him, experts said.
“Someone can always move into a No. 2 spot. That’s not the issue,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of Rand Corp. “But his skills are hard to replace. And the disruption pushes their heads even lower.”
The shift in Al Qaeda toward regional groups, in turn, could change the focus of global terrorism, leaving local groups to attack local governments, said Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Al Qaeda core has sought to unite its branches across the world behind global attacks on the United States rather than focusing on more local issues.
But its power to do so has long been limited. The Al Qaeda core in Pakistan has strong connections to nearby groups such as the Pakistan Taliban, but lacks the numbers and capacity to manage its far-flung affiliates in Somalia or Yemen, said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
“We haven’t been talking for some time about direction from some core group hiding out in South Asia,” said Paul Pillar, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “Their role is best described as exhortation –- not direction.”
With a crippled core, the Al Qaeda branches are still dangerous. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen affiliate that claimed responsibility for training the underwear bomber who tried to down a jet near Detroit three years ago, is now seen as the greatest threat to the U.S.
But those different, distant branches of Al Qaeda may not mobilize as easily behind complex, coordinated attacks on the West, experts said. Rand Corp. terrorism researcher Brian Jackson said the result could be sporadic “popcorn violence” that lacks a greater strategy.
"It's an organization that has very big aspirations," Jackson said. "That doesn't get achieved by a lot of little pieces of the group acting on their own."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A video still dated Oct. 18, 2011, shows Al Qaeda's deputy leader Abu Yahya Libi speaking at an undisclosed location. Credit: IntelCenter