Bin Laden's capture would hurt, but not necessarily end al-Qaida, officials say


Friday, March 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The death or capture of Osama bin Laden would not necessarily spell the end of al-Qaida, although it could fragment the terror network, counterterrorism officials say.

Al-Qaida has no one with the charisma and abilities to replace bin Laden, should he be lost to the organization, officials and experts say. But it has several key operational planners who are expected to carry on in his stead.

``It would be quite a heavy blow,'' said Stan Bedlington, a former CIA terrorism analyst. ``Nobody has the reputation that he has.''

The trail of the world's most wanted terrorist appears to have gotten somewhat warmer since the capture of his operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in Pakistan two weeks ago. Rumors of U.S. operations to hunt for him abound, as do apparently false reports that he has been found.

Pakistani and U.S. officials Wednesday denied Iran Radio's report that bin Laden had been arrested in Pakistan but that his capture would not be announced until the outbreak of fighting in Iraq. Pakistani interior and information ministries denied bin Laden had been captured, as did the CIA and the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

If bin Laden is caught or killed, his chief deputy, the Egyptian doctor, Ayman al-Zawahri, is widely believed to be next in line. But al-Zawahri is thought to be with bin Laden, so it is unlikely he would remain at large after any operation that nabs bin Laden.

Even if he took over, al-Zawahri does not inspire the same fervor that bin Laden does.

``They won't die for Ayman. They'll die for Osama,'' said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief.

Probably the next most senior surviving lieutenant after that is Saif al-Adil, bin Laden's security and intelligence chief, officials say.

Whether bin Laden is captured or killed will make a difference in the future of the organization, Cannistraro said.

``If he dies a martyr, he's someone to emulate,'' he said. ``If he's pranced around in an orange jumpsuit, you have taken a lot of the mystique out of him.''

But bin Laden the prisoner might be a target for operations aimed at freeing him _ particularly hostage-taking incidents overseas.

Regardless, bin Laden's legacy would live on, officials say, although it would be less organized and lack a central hero. Regional groups he funded and trained would not lay down their weapons at his death, and his surviving cadre of lieutenants _ including key operatives involved in the USS Cole and east Africa embassy bombings _ would be expected to continue to plan new operations.

And what many U.S. officials see as the root cause of terrorism _ a lack of economic opportunities in the Muslim world _ would not go away.

Some of the few public statements from U.S. intelligence officials on al-Qaida after bin Laden came last year from Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

He told the Senate Intelligence Committee the surviving leaders would have difficulty keeping the terrorist group together.

``There is no identified successor capable of rallying so many divergent nationalities, interests and groups to create the kind of cohesion he fostered among Sunni Islamic extremists around the world,'' Wilson said in written testimony.

Wilson said that without bin Laden, al-Qaida could ``splinter into a number of loosely affiliated groups, united by a common cause and sharing common operatives.''

A splintered al-Qaida probably wouldn't have the wherewithal to pull off the complex, simultaneous operations al-Qaida is known for, but they would remain a threat, Wilson said.