What effect Osama Bin Laden's death will have on al-Qaida's operations is uncertain.
Retired CIA veteran Paul Pillar, who served as the agency's national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2004, said that al-Qaida has been widely decentralized, spreading to Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other organizations, and that bin Laden's death would have little impact on terrorist operations.
"In terms of operational control and direction, most of the change that matters has already taken place," he 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 his demise would "have far more significance in the way that we in the United States and the West react to it than how violent Islamists will be going about their business."
Bin Laden's death means that he will likely be replaced at the helm of al-Qaida by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who has long served as his chief deputy. Although he has also been in hiding over the last decade, Zawahiri, 59, has been the most visible face and voice of al-Qaida, issuing even more audio and video propaganda statements than bin Laden.
Zawahiri, however, is considered a polarizing figure within the top circles of al-Qaida and has long antagonized Islamic radicals from other factions. U.S. officials predicted he would have a much tougher time preserving unity within al-Qaida and attracting fresh followers.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at Georgetown University, said bin Laden had made preparations for his death ever since 1998 and that al-Qaida almost certainly had a succession plan in place.
In speeches and statements over the past decade, bin Laden has repeatedly said he looked forward to becoming a martyr for al-Qaida's cause; some analysts said he probably did not expect to live as long as he did.
"His intention was that with his death, his message would carry greater resonance than in the last years of his life," Hoffman said. "Zawahiri becomes the obvious heir apparent, and I think he's been running the organization in any event," he said. "The question is, how effective will Zawahiri be in filling bin Laden's shoes?"