South Asia

Osama Bin Laden death 'leaves al-Qaeda irrelevant'

File picture of Pakistani boy with Bin Laden poster in 2002
Image caption Bin Laden's image was once common across parts of the Muslim world

Al-Qaeda's failure to respond to the death of Osama Bin Laden is a key sign of the level of disarray currently permeating through its ranks, argues Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading Pakistani journalist who met Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar several times before 9/11.

In practically all other cases where a senior member of the organisation has been killed, al-Qaeda has wasted no time in admitting the loss in a statement.

But this time reporters have heard nothing from them.

It has been left to the Taliban - al-Qaeda's allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan - to condemn the US attack against Osama Bin Laden, by threatening fresh attacks on Pakistani leaders, the army, and the US.

But even these threats have not come in an official statement.

The Taliban will nevertheless be sad to see Bin Laden's demise. They sacrificed a lot - including power in Afghanistan - to protect him in Afghanistan in the months immediately before and after the US invasion of that country in 2001.

Al-Qaeda's silence may be a sign that the US army is hot on the trail of Bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.

There is little doubt however that Bin Laden's death will not make that much difference to al-Qaeda's level of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had already lost its base in Afghanistan and was on the run in Pakistan.

In fact the main priority of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in recent months was not to fight jihad but to stay alive and avoid capture.

Al-Qaeda was struggling to stay relevant in the region, and was relying on the Taliban to provide it shelter and enable its handful of fighters to continue functioning.

Bin Laden's 'prestige'

Osama Bin Laden's importance in the last months of his life was purely symbolic - he was in effect living incommunicado and relied almost entirely on Taliban sympathisers for his well-being.

Image caption Bin Laden's location came as a surprise to many who thought he was in Pakistan's tribal region

The fact that he was found in Abbottabad is something of a surprise. Most inhabitants of the city are not pro-Taliban and most experts would have expected him to be in a rural location where he would have had better access to stronger Taliban support.

It is because al-Qaeda had virtually no military power that Bin Laden's death is unlikely to have any impact at all on Nato's war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Despite this, it is almost certain that information on Ayman al-Zawahiri's whereabouts will be among the first questions US interrogators will want to direct at anyone who may have been captured in the Abbottabad operation.

Like Bin Laden, Mr al-Zawahiri also has a price on his head - in his case a $25m reward.

But even if he avoids capture, Ayman al-Zawahiri has nothing like the money or the prestige of Bin Laden.

He may be the natural choice to become the next al-Qaeda leader, but he has inherited an organisation that is diminished in strength and which in recent months has frequently been involved in local disputes with different militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan - yet has not been able effectively to exert its authority.

However if al-Qaeda is no longer the force it once was, its ideology - and the image of Osama Bin Laden as a martyr - will remain among the host of anti-western hardline and like-minded Islamist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.