I have, perhaps, an old-fashioned view of history and just as it is hard to explain why the French were in Moscow in 1812 without Napoleon, and the rise of the Nazi party is inextricably linked to the views and personality of Hitler, its just not possible to understand al Qaeda, what it is and what it has done, without understanding bin Laden. Without him al Qaeda simply would not exist (look at the minutes of the founding meetings of al Qaeda in 1988, for instance). Without him 9/11 would have been one of many harebrained schemes in the head of Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM.) The Al Qaeda organization and bin Laden the man are largely co-terminus, after all it's a rather small organization today and has always been so. The Al Qaeda movement is another matter, though that too takes its strategic cues from OBL.
Peter's is an excellent article. I'd submit, however, that it conflates Bin Laden with al Qaeda and I increasingly wonder if perhaps al Qaeda the organization has outgrown Bin Laden the man. After all, a persistent AQ threat does not mean Bin Laden is still calling the shots. Sadly, if it's true that the organization has grown past the man it is another sign of just how successful he and the organization both have been.
Some of the issues in the final discussion I tried to address in a story for TIME earlier this month, so rather than rewriting that story I'm pasting it in below: Does Osama bin Laden matter anymore? You could be forgiven for thinking he doesn't. In recent months, an impressive cast of terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials around the world has coalesced around the notion that al-Qaeda's leader is no longer an active threat to the West. They point out that he has not been able to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11 or in Europe since the London bombings three summers ago. In Iraq, his most successful franchise operation is on the ropes. Across the Muslim world, opinion polls suggest his popularity has faded, and many of his early supporters -- including prominent jihadi ideologues -- have denounced him. Even his messages on the Internet scarcely merit headlines in the mainstream media. Did you know he posted two audio messages on the Web in May? I didn't think so.
Although there have undoubtedly been more plots launched by home-grown cells in the West since 9/11 than by Al Qaeda, the evidence suggests that the most dangerous plots, such as the July 2005 London bombings and the 2006 airlines plot, have all been directed by Al Qaeda.
The either-or nature of the question misses the point. The reality is that we face BOTH a decentralized Al Qaeda manifested by self-radicalized or homegrown "bunches of guys" for whom the al Qaeda name is just a brand or symbol AND a centralized, core al Qaeda group which is still plotting and planning attacks from the Afghan/Pakistan frontier.
Is Osama bin Laden still relevant? Or rather, is the threat more from a reconstituted, centralized Al Qaeda, or from more local groups radicalized by preachers or outside forces (see recent arguments between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman). Also interesting to consider is how centralized Al Qaeda was before September 11, looking at the scope of its attacks both prior to and after September 11. Which is more dangerous, a decentralized Al Qaeda operating as a symbol, or a centralized Al Qaeda still ordering attacks from a mountain redoubt?
Gregory offers a thoughtful analysis and has bravely baited the rest of us to respond, so I'll take the bait. First, and just FYI, my "not unrelated" comment was intended to link energy and the economy, not the economy and terrorism.
Before we fall into a consensus that terrorism remains at (or very near) the top of the heap, permit me to play contrarian among these terrorism experts. Matt advises we face a "three-fold threat", namely: 1) core al-Q, 2) 'franchise' players like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and 3) a motley gaggle of some 300 groups (most of them Sunni, reportedly) that have "less direct ties to al-Qaeda", per Matt.
I agree with Matt Levitt and others that tackling the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism should remain a top-tier national security priority. In the coming decades more significant challenges will no doubt emerge, most important of which will be managing the rise of China. And in the nearer term the Iran nuclear standoff will continue to loom large.