The Killing of Osama bin Laden

The response, leadership and organization of al-Qaeda post Operation Neptune Spear…


On May 3, 2011, al-Qaeda publicly acknowledged the death of Osama bin Laden. In response, al-Qaeda launched a verbal attack towards the people of America, by stating:

soon, God willing, their happiness will turn to sadness, their blood will be mingled with their tears” (Walker, 2011).

The brutality of these words implied that al-Qaeda was initiating an immediate attack, in an attempt to gain revenge for the loss of their leader. Even US officials were not shy of denying the fact that an attack would become more imminent after the death of Bin Laden.


US Intelligence gathered from Operation Neptune Spear further supported this. Intelligence gathered, indicated that Bin Laden was working closely with al-Qaeda days prior to his death. As US officials put it:

“Osama bin Laden functioned like a crime boss pulling strings from a prison cell, sending regular messages to his most trusted lieutenants and strategic advice to far-flung franchises, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen” (Miller and DeYoung, 2011).

The intelligence gathered from Operation Neptune Spear evidently indicated that Bin Laden, prior to his death, was initiating some form of terror attack directed at the heart of the American people. Although speculative, intelligence uncovered a plot to derail a train in the US.

No immediate attack...

Nonetheless, al-Qaeda has yet to date, carried out any form of revenge strike against the US. Subsequently, it can be said,  the short-term response of al Qaeda has been somewhat limited. This opposes Jordan’s (2009: 755) claim, that by eliminating a leader, you are intensifying the likelihood of an immediate attack.

We are yet to see signs of the brutal response al-Qaeda set out to achieve, whether this will become apparent in the long-term is debatable, but with Bin Laden now dead, it looks as if al-Qaeda are struggling to mastermind the strategic response they initially desired.


The succession of leadership in al-Qaeda occurred a month and a half after the death of Bin Laden, on June 16, 2011. Previous operational commander, and public face of al-Qaeda, Anyman Al-Zawahiri took the reigns. Anyman al-Zawahiri was considered by many to be the next in line to take the leadership position.

A weakness inside al-Qaeda...

Since Al-Zawahiri has taken the leadership position, political commentators have implied that members of al-Qaeda have contested his leadership style, claiming that he lacks the charisma required to rebuild the group.

The Congress Research Service further supported this implication in their report. The report outlines the leadership disputes that were seemingly taking place inside al-Qaeda, shortly after Al-Zawahiri took the leadership position.

The report implies that the leadership disputes have subsequently parted al-Qaeda and its affiliates, reducing recruitment and radicalization within the group. Therefore, it appears that under the leadership of Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda has become, to some extent, fragmented. Rohan Gunaratna supports this claim, and acknowledges that:

‘today, in place of one al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, there are 30 groups embracing al-Qaeda ideology and methodology’ (Green, 2013).

For these reasons, it can be implied that Al-Zawahiri has miscarried the legacy of Bin Laden’s leadership style; instead, Al-Zawahiri has disjointed al-Qaeda. This was most noticeable in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010, to which Blair (2012) claims:

“highlighted al-Qaeda’s increasing irrelevance and its failure to win over Muslim opinion.”

Four years into Al-Zawahiri’s leadership, al-Qaeda appears to have lost the unity that Bin Laden once exerted, which had efficaciously enriched al-Qaeda’s influence.


Since US Special Forces eliminated Osama bin Laden, the organizational structure of al-Qaeda has become ever more translucent, making it an increasing target for the US military. As Rollins (2011:3) puts it:

“the U.S. military has demonstrated a highly refined and sophisticated ability to locate, track, and interdict high value targets anywhere in the world.”

For instance, on September 10, 2012, Yemen officials announced that Al-Shihri had been killed as a result of a U.S. air strike in Hadramawt, southern Yemen (BBC News, 2014). The news was greeted with joy by US officials, and rightfully so. Al-Shihri was deputy to Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi, who was a former private secretary under Bin Laden’s leadership. In recent years, it became apparent that Wuhayshi, as cited in the BBC News (2014), was leading an operation:

to form al-Qaeda of Jihad Organisation in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Wuhayshi was thus listed as a prominent figure in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy; therefore the killing of his deputy was seen as a key development for the US in bringing down members of al-Qaeda’s leadership.

al-Qaeda’s struggle…

The ability to target key leaders inside al-Qaeda has become more apparent since the death of Bin Laden, and as Rollins (2011:3) states in his report to Congress:

“this sends the message that no matter how long it takes and how difficult the circumstances, the U.S. will ultimately kill or capture senior terrorist leadership.”

It can be said that Operation Neptune Spear has been beneficial for the US, as it has gifted them with vital intelligence, as Windrem (NBC News, 2014) details in his article for the NBC News, the intelligence obtained from Bin Laden’s compound has:

identified, characterized and tracked potential successors to bin Laden, three of whom were killed in the five months after the raid.”

Operation Neptune Spear has therefore been a success, in that it has aided the US military in their long-term endeavour to bring down al-Qaeda.

List of references

BBC News (2014) Al-Qaeda’s remaining leaders [Online]. Available from:

Blair, D. (2012), ‘Al-Qaeda gravely weakened by the loss of key figures’. The Guardian (online), 27 April 2012. Available at

Green, G. (2013) ‘Two years after the death of Osama Bin Laden, where is al-Qaeda now?’. Metro (online), 11 April 2013. Available at

Jordan, J. (2009) ‘When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation’. Security Studies, 18, pp. 719–755.

Miller, G DeYoung, K. (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s preoccupation with U.S. said to be source of friction with followers’.The Washington Post (online), May 11 2011. Available at

President Obama On Death Of Osama Bin Laden. The White House, 2011. video. Available at:

Rollins, J. (2011) ‘Osama bin Laden’s Death: Implications and Consideration’. Congressional Research Service, pp. 1-23.

Walker, P. (2011), ‘Osama bin Laden death confirmed in al-Qaida statement’. The Guardian (online), 6 May 2011. Available at

Windrem, R. (2014) ‘Six Potential al Qaeda Leaders Eliminated Since Bin Laden Raid’. NBC News (Online). 26 February 2014. Available at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s