A newly released assessment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says bin Laden — though important — was not the only ideologue advocating war between Islam and the West.
"The death of bin Laden is unlikely to have a negative impact on the ideology underpinning worldwide Islamist extremism," says the CSIS report.
"The narrative has shown itself to be flexible, adapting as circumstances change and events ebb and flow."
Bin Laden — whose terror network perpetrated the 9-11 attacks — was buried at sea last May after a covert U.S. team alit from helicopters, stormed a high-walled compound in Pakistan and killed him.
The CSIS assessment, written the day after his death, suggests groups inspired by the al-Qaida message might carry out attacks independently of the terrorist network's centre — pointing to an April bomb blast in a Moroccan square popular with tourists.
"These local groups may not have the logistic and operational wherewithal that the Core has (or once had), but they have executed a number of successful attacks."
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the report — initially classified secret — under the Access to Information Act. CSIS excised much of the content for security and confidentiality reasons.
The assessment expresses concern that the killing of bin Laden would be seen as yet further proof that "the West is targeting Muslims in a Muslim country."
"His death as a 'martyr' — as one jihadi website has already stated — will almost certainly reinforce his iconic image and the righteousness of the AQ cause."
The intelligence report reflects a prevailing view among western intelligence agencies that the leadership of al-Qaida mattered less than the strides the organization had made as a global network, said historian Wesley Wark, a security expert who teaches at the University of Ottawa.
"The real impact is that Osama bin Laden is gone, and there is no sign that the al-Qaida core has been able to regenerate itself, or that the idea of a global, transnational terrorist group has been reborn anywhere."
Though much attention has been focused on offshoots or affiliates of al-Qaida in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia, they have played a rather different role in the extremist sphere, Wark said.
"As far as I know, they haven't indicated any rhetorical desire or capability to try and step into the al-Qaida shoes and become that vanguard global terrorism organization that Osama bin Laden dreamed about," he said.
"Secondly, they don't really seem to have focus for their operations that extends much beyond the regional environment in which they're located."
At the same time, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who formally succeeded bin Laden last June, has "kept an extremely low profile," Wark noted.
CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti said that even with bin Laden's demise, al-Qaida "remains one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world."
"I'm referring not just to the operational capacity of the group and its global affiliates, but also to its role in promoting hateful and extremist messages. The ideology unfortunately has survived the leader."
A federal counter-terrorism strategy released this month says violent Islamic extremism — including the possibility of young Canadians becoming radical followers — is the leading threat to Canada’s national security.
Wark said the government needs to be more precise in defining the threat to Canada from both the remnants of al-Qaida and homegrown extremism.
"Are we concerned about that from a Canadian perspective in terms of international insecurity? Do we think there might be links back to Canada? If so, what do they think those might be?" he said.
"The government is very much seized by this radicalization issue. But what is the real state of the threat in Canada?"
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