There’s nothing like finally getting the top job after a decade of faithfully playing second fiddle to a high-profile boss. But for al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, the dour Egyptian surgeon and longtime deputy to Osama bin Laden, succeeding his old leader comes with an unexpected challenge: His predecessor, it turns out, has gifted him a bit of a lemon. In recent years, al-Qaeda has become the Blockbuster Video of global jihad.
The organization and brand are in deep trouble, and Zawahiri is quite unlikely to become the leader who can turn things around.
Al-Qaeda is peddling an ideology that has lost much of its purchase in the Muslim world, and it hasn’t mounted a successful terrorist attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, transportation bombings in London. The terrorist network’s plots, for instance, to blow up seven American, British and Canadian planes over the Atlantic in 2006, to set off bombs in Manhattan in 2009, and to mount Mumbai-style attacks in Europe a year later all came to nothing. Most notably, it hasn’t carried out a successful attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
This significant record of failure predates the momentous events of the Arab Spring — events in which al-Qaeda’s leaders, foot soldiers and ideas played no role.
Meanwhile, U.S. drone strikes have decimated the bench of al-Qaeda’s commanders since the summer of 2008, when President George W. Bush authorized a ramped-up program of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions. And in the two most populous Muslim nations — Indonesia and Pakistan — favorable views of bin Laden and support for suicide bombings dropped by at least half between 2003 and 2010.
The key force behind this decline has been the deaths of Muslim civilians at the hands of jihadist terrorists. The trail of dead civilians from Baghdad to Jakarta and from Amman to Islamabad over the past decade has largely been the work of al-Qaeda and its allies. Though jihadist groups position themselves as the defenders of the Islamic faith, it has become clear that their actions are quite damaging to Muslims themselves.
Conscious of this problem, in December 2007 Zawahiri and his handlers took the unprecedented step of soliciting questions from anyone over the Internet; the al-Qaeda leader answered them four months later.
It did not go well. Someone identifying himself as a geography teacher asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency’s blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?” Zawahiri responded that he could justify al-Qaeda’s killings of Muslim civilians, and he did so defensively in dense, recondite passages that referred to other dense, recondite things he had already said about the matter.
This exchange only confirmed Zawahiri’s shortcomings, especially compared with his predecessor. Far from being the inspiring orator that bin Laden was, Zawahiri is much more like the pedantic and long-winded uncle who insists on regaling the family at Thanksgiving dinner with accounts of his arcane disputes with obscure enemies no one else cares about.
Not only is Zawahiri a black hole of charisma, he is an ineffective leader who is not well-regarded or well-liked even by the various jihadist groups from his native Egypt. And his half-dozen public disquisitions over the past several weeks about the events of the Arab Spring have been greeted by a well-deserved collective yawn in the Middle East.
Zawahiri’s persona makes a real difference to the future of al-Qaeda, whose members have sworn a personal religious oath of obedience to bin Laden. It’s far from clear how many of them will automatically transfer that oath to Zawahiri.
Moreover, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates —al-Qaeda in Iraq, the North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s al-Shabab— all pledged allegiance to bin Laden when they became part of the network. And while al-Qaeda in Iraq swore loyalty to Zawahiri in a May 9 statement, the others may not agree to shift their fealty to him.
When bin Laden’s followers have described their feelings for him, it has been with love. Abu Jandal, a Yemeni who became one of his bodyguards, described his first meeting with bin Laden in 1997 as “beautiful” and said he came to look on him “as a father.” Shadi Abdalla, a Jordanian who was also one of bin Laden’s bodyguards, explained his boss’s attraction: “A very charismatic person who could persuade people simply by his way of talking. One could say that he ‘seduced’ many young men.”
There is no evidence to suggest that Zawahiri inspires similar feelings. More often he comes off as a classic middle manager, as when he complained in a pre-9/11 memo, later discovered in Afghanistan, that al-Qaeda members in Yemen had spent too much money on a fax machine.
One sign of his potential flaws as al-Qaeda’s new leader is that, despite the fact that Zawahiri had been bin Laden’s deputy since 2001, it took more than six weeks for the group to announce his ascension to the top spot — a delay that does not indicate a large pool of goodwill toward him within the terrorist organization.
Despite all of Zawahiri’s drawbacks and the serious institutional problems he inherits, there are some opportunities for him to help resuscitate al-Qaeda. As the Arab Spring turns into a long, hot and violent summer, Zawahiri will try to exploit the regional chaos to achieve his central goal: establishing a new haven for al-Qaeda.
The one place he might be able to pull this off is Yemen. Many of al-Qaeda’s members, like bin Laden himself, have roots in Yemen, and U.S. counterterrorism officials have identified the al-Qaeda affiliate there as the most dangerous of the group’s regional branches. And the civil war now engulfing the country has already provided an opportunity for jihadist militants to seize the southern town of Zinjibar.
Surely al-Qaeda will want to build on this feat in a country that is the nearest analogue today to pre-9/11 Afghanistan: a largely tribal, heavily armed, dirt-poor nation scarred by years of war.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, Zawahiri wrote in his autobiography that al-Qaeda’s most important goal was to seize control of significant territory somewhere in the Muslim world. He explained that “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances.” He may have a chance to achieve it, but given his personal shortcomings, questionable leadership skills and deteriorating institutional brand, there is little reason to suppose that Zawahiri will be able to do so — even in the failing Yemeni state.
Peter Bergen, the director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda.