With a bold red banner and the long-awaited word -- "Deceased" -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation retired Osama bin Laden from its Most Wanted lists early Monday morning.
The terrorist mastermind was the only individual at the time to occupy both the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list and its Most Wanted Terrorists list -- a testament not only to the extreme threat that bin Laden posed but also to the bureau's shifting priorities in the years leading up to and following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bin Laden became one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives on June 7, 1999, after being indicted in absentia in a New York court for his alleged role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. He joined the ranks of alleged murderers, rapists and drug traffickers, because at the time the 10 Most Wanted list -- a 60-year-old FBI program designed to enlist the public in capturing outlaws -- was the most notorious ranking of criminals in the land.
Contrary to popular belief, members of the list aren't ranked; bin Laden was never technically Public Enemy Number One. But he certainly stood out among his 10 Most Wanted peers, who carry rewards ranging from $100,000 to $2 million. Theirs are serious crimes -- such as James J. Bulger’s alleged 19 counts of murder, or Alexis Flores’ alleged kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old girl. But all of their misdeeds paled in comparison to bin Laden's role as a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bin Laden was also hunted for organizing a global network committed to bringing down the United States, reinstating a seventh-century caliphate governed by Islamic law and forcing nonbelievers to live by that code.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, bin Laden found himself on a second list and in more familiar company: He became one of 22 suspected terrorists on the FBI’s newly created Most Wanted list devoted exclusively to such operatives. The message was clear: Now that terrorism had come to U.S. shores, all Americans could help wage a “war on terror” by being the government's local eyes and ears -- echoing the call for public help that launched the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list in 1950.
The Most Wanted list was the brainchild of then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who used it to popularize his crime-fighting efforts. The FBI says that since the list’s creation, 152 fugitives have been captured with help from everyday citizens.
How successful private citizens have been in aiding the capture of those on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists is unknown. The list is, at the very least, a forum to advertise the high bounty placed on these suspects’ heads. The State Department said it has paid some 60 individuals a total of more than $100 million for information about upcoming attacks or the location of suspects through its Rewards for Justice program, a collaboration with the FBI.
Bin Laden alone carried a $27 million price tag, with $25 million coming from the State Department and another $2 million from the Air Transport Association. What, if anything, will come of that reward remains unclear. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the $27 million sum Monday afternoon, but a State Department spokesman said he believed the money was intended for a private citizen.
The spokesman said he doubted whether someone affiliated with the U.S. government or a foreign government would be eligible to receive the bounty.
Without bin Laden, the Most Wanted Terrorists list now contains 29 suspected terrorists -- the majority of whom have ties to al Qaeda, the Lebanese group Hezbollah or other militant Islamic organizations. The list also includes suspected domestic terrorist Daniel Andreas San Diego, who is linked to extremist animal rights groups. A suspect must be federally indicted before being placed on the list, which explains the current absence of some high-profile terrorist suspects, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric with suspected ties to the 9/11 hijackers.
Even without al-Awlaki, the list contains a number of Islamic terrorists who may begin vying for power in the post-bin Laden landscape, according to counterterrorism analysts. Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which merged with al Qaeda around 1998 -- is expected to play a major role in keeping the movement afloat in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
“It’s not only that he’s number two in command,” said Peter Krause, a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. “But he came with his own Egyptian group, and that’s important going forward.”
Bruce Hoffman, director for the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, highlighted Libyan Anas al-Liby and Egyptian Saif al-Adel, both of whom have alleged ties to the East African embassy bombings; Saudi Adan El Shukrijumah, who is suspected of plotting a 2009 attack for the New York City subway system; and American Abdul Rahman Yasin, who has alleged ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Other experts noted that while the Most Wanted Terrorist list contained a number of the most prominent figures, the structure of al Qaeda has become so diffuse since the Sept. 11 attacks that any list -- top 10 or otherwise -- is unlikely to capture the power of the movement and all those behind it.
“It might say that an FBI list is anachronistic, and that it has been for a while,” said Stuart Gottlieb, a professor of counterterrorism at Yale University and Columbia University who served as a foreign policy adviser for the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2003. “The idea of a centralized al Qaeda directing operations has been gone for eight or nine years.”
The FBI isn’t looking for a bin Laden replacement for the Most Wanted Terrorist list. But his slot on the 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list will be filled, although likely will not be for some time, according to FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
Whether his replacement will be another Islamic terrorist, such as al-Zawahiri, remains to be seen, although rumors are circulating in the press that he is a likely candidate.
According to sources inside the FBI, however, it’s more likely that bin Laden’s so-called replacement will be wanted for a string of bank robberies than for creating a global terrorist network.
The one thing that’s nearly guaranteed is that whoever the newcomer is to the FBI’s most infamous list, he’ll find shoes that will be much too big to fill.