WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- The killing of Osama bin Laden, the face of terrorism for years, may have dealt a blow to al-Qaida but didn't knock it out, U.S. officials said.
Bin Laden basically was the sole commander of al-Qaida in its 22-year history "and was largely responsible for the organization's mystique, its attraction among violent jihadists and its focus on America as a terrorist target," a senior White House official said during a briefing on the attack Sunday of a compound near Islamabad, Pakistan, in which bin Laden was killed.
While bin Laden's authority was widely respected, his likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "is far less charismatic and not as well-respected within the organization, judging by comments from several captured al-Qaida leaders," a White House official said.
"He probably will have difficulty maintaining the loyalty of bin Laden's largely Gulf Arab followers," the official said.
Since the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida has expanded. U.S. intelligence officials said in recent months that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization's affiliate in Yemen, poses the most likely threat to U.S. interests and has been tied to a series of failed attacks, including an attempted bombing aboard a U.S. airplane as it was landing in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, The Washington Post reported.
One leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is Anwar al-Awlaki, who may try to claim at least part of bin Laden's role as a charismatic figure determined to attack the United States and the West.
Following the failed Detroit airplane attack, President Obama authorized the CIA to kill him. Awlaki is thought to be hiding in the mountainous governorates of Shabwa and Marib under the protection of the Awalik tribe, to which he belongs, the BBC said.
Counter-terrorism experts said bin Laden's death struck a blow to the terrorist network he helped found and build, even though his role was more symbolic than operational in recent years.
"Decapitating the movement will not undermine it; the al-Qaida affiliates and the singletons will still pose threats," John McLaughlin, who once served as the CIA's interim director, told the Post. "But much of the inspirational power of the al-Qaida center will diminish."
Paul Pillar, who was the agency's national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2004, said al-Qaida had decentralized and bin Laden's death wouldn't change attack planning much.
"In terms of operational control and direction, most of the change that matters has already taken place," Pillar said. Bin Laden's role "for some time has been more as a symbol and a source of ideology than an instigator of operations. That role will continue, dead as well as alive."
Pillar said bin Laden's death would have greater significance in how the United States and the West react to terror-inspired violence, not how the terrorists "will be going about their business."