The Obama administration's portrayal of Osama bin Laden as a still active terrorist in the middle of plotting attacks on America's transport system and in command and control of global networks was gratuitous, say the heads of Western and Arab counter-terror agencies fighting al Qaeda. The audacity of President Barack Obama's decision to order the targeted operation for killing him in Abbottabad on May 2 was impressive enough to need no further gilding.
On the videos released, Bin Laden may have looked old, but he was far from doddering. His stature and mental robustness preserved him as the unquestioned icon and symbol of the organization he created, a symbol, some Western terrorist hunters agree, which may be harder to kill than the man.
On May 5, three days after the al Qaeda leader was no more, Ernst Uhrlau, head of the German BND foreign intelligence agency, whose talents have been conspicuous on the front line of the Western war on al Qaeda and fellow jihadist organizations, put it this way:
"Bin Laden's death marks the loss of its undisputed main symbolic and leading figure. He had not been centrally involved in operations for some time, but he remained the main source of ideological thinking and chief strategist. Bin Laden decided whether groups like today's Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Al Qaeda in Iraq were to be allowed to join the network. The oath of allegiance was made to Bin Laden, not the organization.
His shoes will stay empty for some time
By referring to him as "the main source of ideological thinking and chief strategist," Uhrlau confirmed that bin Laden stood out as the role model and operational and ideological inspiration for a whole al Qaeda generation although his active 19 years from 1986 wound down in 2005.
It was then that Bin Laden accepted that Al Qaeda in Iraq, even under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom alone of all the organization's top names he considered a worthy successor, would never succeed in gaining power in Iraq and defeating the American army.
After that, he resigned himself to living comfortably and reliving the past by switching between the videos recording his big terrorist "exploits."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources don't believe that his successor will be named any time soon. There will be plenty of speculation and names floated for propaganda purposes – but Al Qaeda's Supreme Shura Council has yet to convene and approve al Qaeda's next leader and, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources, appears to be in no hurry to do so.
False reports circulating this week which claimed the Council had already met were an example of how fast the rumor mill will be spinning in the weeks to come, generating the same kind of murky ambiguity that has surrounded the Iraq chief in the past three years. Although the name "Abu Baker al-Baghdadi" is the reference commonly used in the West and Al Qaida, no one knows if a real person exists behind this name and its title of head of the Islamic State of Iraq. And if there does, whether that is his real identity.
Ten names qualify as lone wolf avengers
Neither do our sources foresee al Qaeda marshalling its resources on the global level any time soon for a large-scale settling of scores for its leader's death.
Its branches, like for example Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-AQAP do not work together; nor do they maintain ties. Most of the al Qaeda hunters in Western and Arab agencies are therefore looking at a lone wolf avenger acting solo without backup from regional networks or local connections.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly lists hereunder the 10 most outstanding al Qaeda masterminds capable of conceiving of and carrying through an attack or attacks as payback for the death of their leader:
Ayman al-Zawahiri: He was known in the West as bin Laden's first deputy although no such title was ever conferred on him. Some called this Egyptian doctor, aged 59, al Qaeda's senior strategist. However, for most of the years of their association from the mid-1980s, his relations with bin Laden were dominated by personal rivalry and only in the four years from 1998-2002 did they find understanding – but only for time.
They cooperated in setting up the August 7, 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, in which 224 people were killed and more than 4,500 others injured.
But bin Laden subsequently kept Al-Zawahiri at arm's length from preparations for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, consigning him to liaising between him and the terrorist cells of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
In recent years, Al Zawahiri released more videos with rants against the West than did the supreme leader. Arab speakers noted how the nuanced differences between them crept into his phrasing.
His strained relationship with Bin Laden notwithstanding, Al-Zawahiri would certainly be willing and capable of setting up a large-scale attack as a revenge operation although these days he does not command a functioning organization. But his main objective would be to impress the members of the Al Qaeda Shura Council and persuade them to appoint him successor rather than a settling of scores over Bin Laden's death.
The live-wire terrorist of East Africa
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed: Little known in the West or the Arab world, this exceptionally brilliant and slippery commander of al Qaeda-East Africa and the Somalia civil war was one of the few top members who Osama bin Laden held close as a personal friend.
Born on the Comoro Islands off the eastern African coast, "Fazul" spearheaded the planning and execution of the explosion that crippled the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, on October 12, 2000, killing 17 American sailors and injuring more than 590.
He was also prominent in planning and carrying out the US embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998.
Today, he is at the forefront of Al Qaeda offensives in Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Unlike most other regional and local al Qaeda branches which recruit combatants locally, Fazul's outfit uses professional terrorist networks which operate under deep cover and are closely compartmentalized.
At least three times, this dangerous terrorist slipped away to safety only minutes before US agents would have laid hands on him.
Jamel Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al-Badawi: Fazul's chief of operations, the Egyptian al-Badawi was on the team which executed the USS Cole attack in Aden port. Jailed by the Yemen authorities for complicity in the attack, he escaped from prison in April, 2003, was recaptured in March of 2004, and made his final getaway from Yemeni custody on February 3, 2006.
The only US citizen targeted for assassination
Anwar al-Awlaki: This charismatic leader of al Qaida in Yemen holds dual US-Yemeni citizenship. He has been tied to the 9/11 hijackers inspirationally and personally. Three are known to have attended Al-Awlaki's sermons and two of them met him privately in San Diego. He is also suspected of having foreknowledge of the most deadly attacks every perpetrated in America.
In 2009, he was promoted to the rank of "regional commander" within al-Qaeda.
That year, too, in November, US Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 US military personnel at Fort Hood under the influence of his spiritual guide and mentor, al Awlaki.
The Yemeni arch terrorist met the failed Christmas 2010 bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an al Qaeda trainee and helped plan his abortive attack to bring down a civilian airliner.
In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty to the attempted Times Square car bombing, told interrogators he was "inspired by" al-Awlaki.
In April 2010, President Obama, with the consent of the US National Security Council, approved the targeted killing of the Yemeni-American extremist, making him the first US citizen ever placed on the CIA target list.
Anas Al-Liby: He was one of the people closest to Bin Laden.
They first met in Sudan in 1994. For that meeting, Al-Liby traveled especially from London where he enjoyed political asylum. Named for his Libyan origin, he speaks Arabic and English. Because of his height and passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden, he was often used as a decoy when the al Qaeda leader traveled.
Indicted in New York for complicity in the East African US embassy bombings, Al-Liby is quite capable of planning and executing a revenge attack motivated by his deep friendship with the dead al Qaeda leader.
Al-Liby, unlike most of the other candidates, could call on help from Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, with whom he has cooperated in the past in more than one operation.
Al Qaeda's Chief Operations Officer
Saif al-Adel: Even without the formal title of al Qaeda's Chief of Operations, the Egyptian Saif al-Adel has won recognition within the terrorist organization and among Western and Arab intelligence agencies as its most astute and elegant master of operations. One way or another, he has taken a hand in nearly every major Al Qaeda terrorist operation to date, including the 9/11 attacks.
In 2001, when the Americans invaded Afghanistan, he fled to Iran where he was held under house arrest off and on for nine years.
In 2003-2004, Tehran targeted Saudi Arabia for a wave of terror using Qaeda operatives held in Iran for these cross-border missions. Operations whiz Al-Adel was given overall command of this offensive.
Then, in September 2010, when the US stepped up sanctions against Tehran, Iranian agents escorted him across the border into Northern Waziristan, Pakistan, to orchestrate operations against American targets in conjunction with the Taliban.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources say that if the Taliban were to decide on payback for the killing of Bin Laden, Saif al-Adel would be chosen for the job.
Isnilon Totni Hapilon: A citizen of the Philippines, Hapilon is believed to be second in command of the Islamist Abu Sayyaf Group – ASG. His record covers terrorist acts against US and other foreign nationals in and around the Republic of the Philippines.
Al Qaeda's dirty bomb expert
Adnan G. El Shukrijumah: He is Al Qaeda's leading expert for radioactive, chemical and biological terror with the know-how for assembling and detonating dirty bombs.
On November 7, 2003, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 132 carried an article under the heading: One-Man “Dirty Bomb” Cell Sought in US and Canada.
He first came to American notice when Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in Karachi in March 2003, divulged the name and existence of a “one-man cell trained to build from scratch radiological bombs capable of environmental contamination.”
The one-man cell called Adnan Shukrijamah was indicted in the Eastern District of New York in July of 2010 for his alleged role in a terrorist plot to attack targets in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The charges revealed that the plot against New York City's subway system uncovered in September of 2009 was directed by senior Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. It also led straight to a scheme for using Western recruits, such as home-grown operatives, for reaching targets in the United States.
El Shukrijumah is thought to have served on Al Qaeda's external operations program leadership. Born in Saudi Arabia, he was a teenager when his family moved to the United States.
Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah: Another Egyptian, he is also one of Saif al-Adel's most able operations officers.
In 1992, he was part of the group which helped Saif al-Adel provide al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Sudan with intelligence and military training. Those trainees went on to fight American peacekeepers in the Battle of Mogadishu which climaxed Operation Restoring Hope in 1993.
In 1996 and 1998, Abdullah ran al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan.
Zulkifli Abdhir is the reputed chief of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia -KMM terrorist organization and a member of Jemaah Islamiyah's (JI) central command.
He acts as sub-contractor for other terrorist organizations, supplying such services as training in the manufacture of bombs to Abu Sayyaf Group members in the Philippines.