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Al Zawahiri and al Qaeda: The Long War Continues

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It will be a grave mistake for U.S. officials to downplay al Qaeda’s danger under its new leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Six weeks after Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s “General Command” formally announced his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri as the organization’s new leader. The group’s statement also reaffirmed al Qaeda’s “jihad against the apostate invaders ... with their head being crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them." Zahawiri’s ascent to al Qaeda’s top leadership spot should come with no surprise, as he had been the group’s second-in-command for more than a decade.

Born in 1951 to a family of doctors and scholars in Cairo, Zawahiri joined the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood when he was just 15, but quit later in protest at the movement’s “moderation.” In 1981, an Egyptian court jailed him for three years, during which time he was tortured for complicity in the assassination of President Anwar al Sadat. In 1986, he left Cairo for Peshawar, where he joined the Afghan jihadi groups and met bin Laden. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, he established his own armed group, the Islamic Jihad, which carried out the 1995 bombing of Egypt’s embassy in Pakistan. In 1998, he merged the Islamic Jihad into al Qaeda.

An attack in the United States or Europe would help him consolidate his position within al Qaeda and prove that al Qaeda is alive without bin Laden.

Zawahiri takes over al Qaeda’s leadership at a time when the group has suffered a severe setback: it has lost its inspirational leader and several battlefield commanders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East have marginalized it further. The White House dismissed the new al Qaeda chief as "an armchair general with a 'soft' image" who has "nowhere near the credentials that Osama bin Laden had." State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Zawahiri’s selection “barely matters.”

While Zawahiri lacks his predecessor’s charisma, it is a mistake to underestimate his organizational and operational skills and the danger Zawahiri’s al Qaeda will pose to the U.S. national security. A key strategist and skilled propagandist, he has been the “operational brains” behind many high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, including the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the 9/11 attacks, and the double-agent attack that killed seven CIA officers in eastern Afghanistan. The threat from al Qaeda will increase as Zawahiri will try to fulfill his promise to avenge bin Laden’s death. An attack in the United States or Europe would help him consolidate his position within al Qaeda and prove that al Qaeda is alive without bin Laden. For Zawahiri, fighting the United States is personal: he lost his family members in a U.S. airstrike after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say Zawahiri’s divisive nature and arrogance may weaken al Qaeda.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say Zawahiri’s divisive nature and arrogance may weaken al Qaeda. But while Zawahiri demonstrated leadership flaws in the 1980s and 1990s, he has learned from those mistakes and has become more pragmatic and cautious about alienating allies. In a 2005 letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Zawahiri advocated against promoting sectarian strife. He has even echoed conciliatory notes about Egypt’s Coptic Christians. He has also developed a reputable standing amongst dozens of terrorist groups in Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, and the Middle East.

Zawahiri does face daunting challenges, however. He is now High Value Target No. 1. His key challenge will not only be to keep al Qaeda alive, but also himself. It is also unclear whether he can convince Saudi and Yemeni fighters and other non-Egyptians to remain loyal to his leadership.

He will also struggle to make al Qaeda relevant in the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Al Qaeda was a bystander when pro-democracy protesters toppled leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Zawahiri may increase al Qaeda’s attention to Egypt in order to exploit the vulnerability of the country’s transition to democracy. He hails from Egypt and understands the country’s importance in the Muslim world.

The White House dismissed the new al Qaeda chief as ‘an armchair general with a “soft” image’ who has ‘nowhere near the credentials that Osama bin Laden had.’

But Zawahiri’s priority will remain Pakistan, a nuclear power and a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Many terrorist groups in the tribal areas and Punjab have endorsed al Qaeda. The Pakistani Taliban backed Zawahiri as a “capable person” to lead al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s sanctuary near Pakistan’s key military academy and the attacks on Pakistan’s navy base in Karachi suggest that al Qaeda and its affiliates have infiltrated Pakistan’s army and intelligence. And as Pakistan is seeking to restrain U.S. intelligence activities and halt drone strikes, al Qaeda’s activities in the country will only increase.

Al Qaeda may be weakened, but it is not defeated. It will be a grave mistake for U.S. officials to downplay al Qaeda’s danger under its new leader.

Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Majidyar has recently published “Pakistan Should Disband the ISI,” “The U.S. Needs a Special Commission to Investigate Pakistan-Al Qaeda Ties,” and “Obama's Pakistan Strategy Unsuccessful.” For more information on the Middle East, see AEI’s coverage of the war on terror, including Frederick W. Kagan’s “Success Against al Qaeda Depends on Success in Afghanistan” and Danielle Pletka’s "Don't Abandon Afghanistan!

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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