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5 Years Later, How Does Bin Laden's Killing Impact Al-Qaida's Legacy?


It happened five years ago today - the White House announced a rare Sunday-night press conference at the last minute, and then President Obama made the announcement.


BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

MARTIN: Today, the biggest terrorist threat against the U.S. and its allies comes from ISIS, a different and arguably more brutal organization. Where does that leave al-Qaida and bin Laden's legacy? To answer that, we've reached out to Lawrence Wright. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "The Looming Tower," which traced the birth and growth of al-Qaida. Welcome to the program.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thanks so much. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Can you walk us back in time five years or so? Remind us what happened immediately after bin Laden was killed. Did his deputies go further underground? What happened to the organization?

WRIGHT: Well, the al-Qaida core, which was hiding in Pakistan, they did go to ground. The organization was badly splintered and poorly led, demoralized and unable to repeat the successes that it had had up until 9/11.

MARTIN: So losing bin Laden fundamentally changed the organization?

WRIGHT: Well, it's now led by Ayman al-Zawahri, who has none of the magnetism that bin Laden had. But the organization, though demoralized and splintered, is certainly not dead. And I think that's something that we should be aware of. It may be in competition with ISIS, but it hasn't gone away.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. I mean, we've heard these reports about the tension between ISIS and al-Qaida. Can you get into that a little bit? Where are the fault lines? What are the differences between these two groups?

WRIGHT: It started back in the early days of the Afghan training camps. And I learned that there was a competitive organization training in Afghanistan led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was Jordanian. And he enlisted people from that region of the Arab world, and that organization eventually became al-Qaida in Iraq and then morphed into ISIS.

MARTIN: What are the philosophical differences between the two groups?

WRIGHT: The principal difference between the two is the decision on the leadership on the part of the Islamic State to establish a caliphate right away. This is something that bin Laden saw as a distant dream. The idea behind the Islamic State is that the time is now for the caliphate. And this idea certainly resonates with a lot of very impatient young radicals.

MARTIN: So if you look at these two organizations, al-Qaida and ISIS, and if you're a young Jihadi who is looking to hitch up with one of them - I mean, it would seem to be clear that ISIS is the more attractive organization. This is the group that's capturing the headlines. This is the group that's really seized the narrative. Where does that leave al-Qaida?

WRIGHT: Well, in fact, the most powerful organization in Syria right now is Al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, not an ISIS affiliate. And I think that that's one of the things that's lost in, you know, the publicity surrounding ISIS on the ground. Al-Nusra is the main organization fighting against the Assad regime in Syria right now. And in Yemen and other places, al-Qaida has very powerful affiliates. Yes, they're in competition with ISIS, but they certainly are not diminished in their standing. They - and I think on the battlefield right now, it's ISIS that's been suffering more than Al-Nusra has been.

MARTIN: So what is your feeling five years on as someone who has studied al-Qaida over the long term? How do you look back on that U.S. Special Forces raid into Pakistan when bin Laden was killed?

WRIGHT: I think the world is a lot better off without bin Laden, but I've often wished that bin Laden hadn't been killed on that day. My hope was that he would have been captured and put on trial because the thing that we had to deal with and we still have to deal with is the legacy of bin Laden, that virus that infects so many young Muslims. And how do we get rid of that?

I thought if we had captured him and put him on trial first of all in Kenya, where on August 7, 1998, al-Qaida killed 213 people - and then after that, you could take him so many places. You could take him to Istanbul and Casablanca and London and Madrid and Islamabad. And finally, you could bring him to America, where he would stand trial for the 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

And then one last place you could take him, which is back to his home country, Saudi Arabia, and try him under sharia law. And if he were to be convicted, he would have been taken out to a place called Chop-Chop Square, where the executioner would have dealt with him, finally, and he would be buried in an unmarked Wahabi graveyard. And I think in that way, you could have addressed this woeful legacy of bin Laden and his progeny that still infects the world.

MARTIN: New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, thank you so much.

WRIGHT: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.