OPINION: The question now is what will happen to the gang?

IHAB Shoukri was never destined to die of old age. His enemies were so plentiful and vicious that many assumed he was headed for a bullet. He has the peace process to thank for the fact that he survived this long.

Shoukri was probably saved from being murdered by the British Government and the PSNI who, in 2006, brought pressure on the mainstream UDA not to kill him but to simply expel him from the organisation. That year police twice warned him of active death threats.

On April 24 his assassination had been discussed at a top level UDA meeting and it came up again a month later. Police and Government officials met the members of the UDA inner council to warn them that their ceasefire would not be recognised and that they would face a security clampdown if they used violence to rid themselves of his challenge to their control of the streets.

The authorities could save Shoukri from his rivals, but they could not save him from himself. On Saturday evening he died of a drugs overdose at a house in Newtownabbey. The circumstances, as the police put it, were not suspicious. It was par for the course.

I happened to be in the company of Baroness May Blood, the former Shankill Road community worker, when she heard the news. She was sorry to hear of a young man losing his life in such squalid and ignominious circumstances but commented "you live by the sword, you die by the sword." He was a man who pumped drugs into the community and his legacy was one of ruined young lives, Blood said.

The son of a Coptic Christian seaman from Egypt and a local woman, Shoukri had been born and reared in the Westland estate. As the only dark faces in the neighbourhood Ihab and his brothers Andre and Yuk endured racial taunts from classmates at the Boys' Model who called them "Pakis".

The brothers refused to be baited, even joining in the "jokes", but if any attempt was made to bully them physically they gave back as good as they got. The Shoukris cultivated a tough guy image and they stuck together in a gang with other youths. There were few who would cross them.

Ihab, a strikingly handsome man with an easy manner, became a body builder and rose to the top of the local street gangs. He joined the UDA to escape a punishment beating but, as a leaked internal report from the organisation put it, he and his brother Andre "would have been criminals in any walk of life".

Shoukri's big break came through an alliance with Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, the UDA's west Belfast "brigadier". Together they deposed "Jimbo" Simpson – a sad shambling figure known as the "Bacardi Brigadier" who led the organisation in north Belfast.

For around three years Ihab and Andre alternated the north Belfast leadership between them, bleeding the area dry. Legitimate businesses, community groups, government projects and criminal enterprises, like drugs and prostitution rings, were all plundered by Shoukri's protection rackets. They used the pretext of collecting for loyalist prisoners to extort money, pouring it into a vulgar, profligate lifestyle of drugs, booze, gambling and girls.

Andre lost 860,000 in one bookie's shop alone. A report by the Institute for Conflict Research found that, in 2006, community and statutory agencies were on the verge of pulling out of loyalist areas in north Belfast because "corruption and racketeering" organised by Shoukri from the North Belfast Prisoners' Aid Office was leading to massive misappropriation of funds.

After the Shoukris were expelled from the UDA things improved in north Belfast, but they moved on to become the leaders of the breakaway south east Antrim faction, attempting to build a new power base.

Now that Ihab is dead and Andre is in jail, the question now is what will happen to this gang? If it either collapses or rejoins the mainstream, then loyalist decommissioning and the running down of the paramilitaries will become a possibility.

The fear is that there will instead be a bloody turf war for the remnants of Ihab Shoukri's criminal empire.