In a four page statement released to jihadist forums on May 6, 2011, al-Qaeda officially announced the death of its leader, Usama bin Laden, stating that he “was killed in truth in a situation of truth.”
Rather than lament his passing, al-Qaeda chose to use bin Laden as an example to others, noting, “So if the Americans were able to kill Usama, this is not shame or stigma.” Instead, al-Qaeda reminds its followers that the ideas that bin Laden stood for did not die with him: “But can the Americans, with their media, agents, machinery, soldiers, intelligence and agencies kill that for which Sheikh Usama lived and that for which he was killed?”
While the message did promise revenge, threaten attacks, and pledge to continue waging jihad against the West, another of the statement's purposes appears to be demonstrate to supporters that al-Qaeda remains intact and able to continue its operations. Al-Qaeda named no new leader in the message, nor discussed how al-Qaeda would choose who would replace bin Laden. The statement itself was signed only by the “General Command” of al-Qaeda.
The message appears to have been hastily crafted, likely in an attempt to illustrate to followers that al-Qaeda is still extant following bin Laden's death and able to react rapidly to current events. Although the confirmation was released on May 6, it was dated May 3, indicating a lag of three days between the time the message was drafted and its distribution on jihadist forums. This lag does not appear to have been intended, as there have been repeated online requests and demands from jihadist ideologues and supporters to confirm or deny bin Laden's death, forcing the administration of the main jihadist forum to issue a statement stating that they had no information on bin Laden's status.
Perhaps further indicating that the message was drafted very early after the news of bin Laden's death, the message demands that the United States hand over the body of bin Laden to his family, demonstrating that the authors of the message were unaware of the news that the terrorist leader's body had already been disposed of at sea.
Additionally, in order to prevent leaks, messages from al-Qaeda are typically password-protected before being distributed to jihadist forums, along with the passwords to decrypt them. In this case, however, the message was released without password-protection, indicating that the statement was published as soon as it was received by al-Fajr Center, al-Qaeda's online distribution committee.
Without naming a new leader and apparently written very shortly after bin Laden's death, al-Qaeda seems to be asserting to its followers and the world that it is an organization that is larger than any single man. Whether al-Qaeda even need name an “official” new leader is uncertain, as was the case following the death of al-Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, killed in May 2010. So long as the group can continue to issue messages, just like its statement on bin Laden's death, and broadcast the statements of other leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Louis Attiyah Allah, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group will remain a guiding light for the global jihadist community.
Rita Katz is the Director of the SITE Intelligence Group. Josh Devon is SITE's Assistant Director.