The day after a team of U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a stealth raid on his compound in Pakistan, the FBI updated its "10 Most Wanted Fugitives" list with one word under bin Laden's undated photo: "Deceased."
But two weeks after the world's most infamous terrorist was buried in the North Arabian Sea, there's a central, lingering question in the sanctums of intelligence and military planning: Who are the new terrorist leaders causing U.S. counterterrorism officials to lose sleep?
One principal figure has long been known to intelligence and national security insiders: U.S.-born, English-speaking propaganda chief of a Yemen-based al Qaeda offshoot, Anwar al-Awlaki. The militant cleric has been implicated in many of the recent high-profile attacks in the United States, from the failed 2010 car bombing in Times Square to the 2009 massacre of 13 U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.
But beyond prominent and well known figures such as al-Awlaki, the question of identifying key terrorist targets is a tricky one. In large part, that's because bin Laden himself was striving to sustain al Qaeda, and the Islamist movement more broadly, as a cell-based, leaderless effort that functioned independent of state support--a viral model of terrorist insurgency, in essence.
"The interesting thing going forward is going to be what exactly is bin Laden's legacy," Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of counterterrorism and homeland security studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Envoy.
"Bin Laden wanted it to be more than an organization; a movement with a 1,000 bin Ladens," said Nelson, a 20-year Navy veteran who previously served at the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC). "He wanted it to be a self-sustaining, self-sufficient movement beyond his leadership."
"It's going to take us a few years to figure out whether his efforts over the last few decades have been successful," Nelson explained. "Was he successful in creating an organization that is self-sustaining, or was it only as big as his persona?"
Indeed, it will take some time to sort out this question within the enormous federal bureaucracy devoted to national security and the global terrorist threat.
Various U.S. government bureaucracies maintain lists of terrorist suspects and entities. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Controls maintains a list of "specially designated nationals and blocked persons" with whom U.S. persons and companies are prohibited from conducting business and financial transactions, for instance. Treasury updates that list frequently--so frequently, in fact, that it now runs hundreds of pages long. The State Department meanwhile, keeps lists of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which are banned from receiving material support from U.S. persons and companies. State also keeps a second list of U.S.-designated terrorist individuals and organizations authorized under Executive Order 13224, which former President George W. Bush signed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to restrict terrorism financing. Yet a third State document--the Terrorism Exclusion List--monitors terrorist suspects who are forbidden from traveling freely within the United States.
The litany of federal lists follows a rough division of labor among lead agencies, experts say. The State Department list "tends to target [terrorist] operatives, and the Treasury Department [terrorism] financiers, but the rules aren't hard and fast," said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The more basic problem with the terrorism watch lists, observers say, is a familiar one in Washington: data sprawl. Both the Treasury and State lists have bulked into huge databases that tend to distract, rather than focus, the commitment of personnel and resources, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Policy makers have sought to counteract this risk with a shorter list of top-priority names, which for national security reasons is not made available for public consumption. The Bush administration inaugurated this more operational, frequently tweaked list of "high-value targets"--reportedly numbering between 10 to 30 significant terrorist suspects at any one time --which identifies prime targets for military and intelligence operations to capture or kill.
"There had been nothing quite like it before in U.S. history," Reuters' Warren Strobel, Caron Bohan, Mark Hosenball, Tabussam Zakaria and Missy Ryan wrote in their special report on the bin Laden operation this week.
"The U.S. spy agencies would propose a name for the high-value target list and prepare a dossier explaining who the suspect was and why he ought to be on the list," the report explained. If the Justice Department, Pentagon and CIA lawyers "deemed the dossier adequate, the committee would then approve the individual's name for inclusion on the 'high-value target' list--subject to capture or death by American spies or soldiers."
The "high-value target" list is an outgrowth of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center [CTC], a former senior CIA official told The Envoy. "It is a CTC term and it is not like the other lists, more informal, and constantly changing," he said.
The High-Value Targets list "is where they put their resources," the former CIA officer said. "These are the guys who are most important--and these are the guys we have the most information on."
So who are some of the two dozen terrorism suspects on the high-value target list?
High on the list is Saif al-Adel (Abu Saif), an Egyptian-born al Qaeda lieutenant, believed to be hiding in Pakistan, who was reportedly chosen interim chief of al Qaeda's command and control in the wake of bin Laden's demise, according to news reports out of Pakistan.
Adel, wanted by the FBI for his alleged role in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, is a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with bin Laden's number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, who trained as a medical doctor. In the wake of bin Laden's death, Zawahiri will retain his posts as Al Qaeda patron and chief of al Qaeda's militant command, the News report said, describing al Qaeda's command as increasingly dominated by Egyptians.
The News also reported that in the wake of bin Laden's demise other senior leaders have moved up the ranks: "The sources said Adnan al-Kashri had been made in charge of the general information affairs. Muhammad Nasir al-Washi Abu Nasir has been made in charge of al-Qaeda Africa affairs, while Muhammad Adam Khan Afghani has been appointed as in charge of Afghanistan-Waziristan affairs. The sources said Fahad al-Qava had been appointed as the Urgent Operational Commander."
Another core al Qaeda target of U.S. counterterrorism officials: Adnan Shukrijumah, a Saudi who grew up in the U.S.--Brooklyn and South Florida--who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on information leading to his apprehension. Shukrijumah was indicted in New York in July 2010 for his alleged role in a terrorist plot to attack New York subway targets.
"Al Qaeda core is down but not out," former FBI analyst Levitt told The Envoy. "There are still people in core al Qaeda we are very, very wary of, whose ability to reach people on the periphery goes over and beyond affiliates."
Core al Qaeda now has 100 or fewers members, many of whom are now believed to be in Pakistan, U.S. officials have recently testified. But beyond core al Qaeda, Levitt explained that there are two other groups of terrorists of particular concern to the United States. One threat comes from key al Qaeda "franchises" or "affiliates"--particularly al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Multiple U.S. officials have described the Yemeni group as the biggest immediate threat to the United States. The other major concern for the United States is the growing cohort of homegrown militants.
And as is often the case in the shadowy world of Islamist terrorism, these two groups overlap in significant ways. Take the American-born propaganda chief for AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki is now based in Yemen, but has has managed from his base there to influence many of the militants who have lately sought to carry out high-profile attacks on the United States. Among them: the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight by the London-based Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who trained in Yemen with AQAP; the November 2009 attack on the army base at Ft. Hood committed by Army psychiatrist Maj. Hasan Nidal Malik which killed 13 U.S. soldiers; and the naturalized Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad, the son of a top Pakistani Air Force officer, who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, and who had trained in a militant camp in Pakistan, reportedly run by the Pakistani Taliban.
A third growing concern for the United States: Militant groups, many of them based in Pakistan, that are expanding their operations beyond local and parochial targets. Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT), for instance, is a Pakistani militant group that previously concentrated on attacks against Indian control of Kashmir; while the Haqqani network, on the Pakistan-Afghan border, "has been at the forefront of insurgent activity in Afghanistan, responsible for many high-profile attacks," the State Department said last week.
In recent years, both Pakistan-based groups have further radicalized and expanded their target reach. LeT was implicated in the November 2008 terrorism attacks in Mumbai, India that killed more than 180 people, including six Americans. A trial related to the case got under way in Chicago this week. And the U.S. State Department formally designated a fourth leader of the Haqqani network, Badruddin Haqqani, a son of the founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a terrorist last week, asserting his responsibility for the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, who escaped from his captors in 2009.
"We see a lot more affiliates who have not taken the al Qaeda name, who share all or part of its ideology, some more focused on the global part but some more focused on the immediate threat," Levitt said.
Given the more diffuse character of the Islamist terrorism threat in the wake of bin Laden's death, can U.S. policy makers ever hope to declare the threat to have subsided--or at least, significantly diminished?
In reply Levitt laughed--and then delivered an analysis that sounded somewhat optimistic. A few decades ago, people were worried "about communists sprouting up everywhere. ... Communism is not a primary threat to us anymore. In the near term, there will come a period where we are not talking about al Qaeda per se, but we still talk about terrorism. It is still a priority threat. But this, too, shall pass."
(Left to right: Oct. 2008 file photo of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen: Muhammad ud-Deen, File/AP. Image released by the FBI in 2010 of Saif al-Adel: FBI/AP. Undated photo released by the FBI in 2010 of Adnan Shukrijumah: FBI/AP)