During his first stint in Pakistan during the 1980s, al-Zawahiri saw the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan as a sideshow. He focused his organizational efforts, including the training camp affiliated with his Egyptian group, on the fight back home in Egypt. This may cost him. The Taliban in particular felt honor-bound to stand by Bin Laden, who had stood by Afghans during the 1980s and '90s. Their debt to al-Zawahiri is much less keen.
To fill the void created by Bin Laden's death, al-Zawahiri must build trust not only with Egyptian members of al-Qaida who have fought and quarreled with him over the decades, but also with the Libyans, Algerians, Saudis, Yemenis, and others who have joined its ranks. Strengthening these bonds in his new role requires meeting in person with key lieutenants in order to build rapport and communicating with them and others on a regular basis. He also needs to send a message to jihadists around the world, assuring them that while Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida lives on.
This all sounds simple, but the intense drone campaign against al-Qaida in Pakistan, to say nothing of intelligence that could be gleaned from material taken during the deadly raid on Bin Laden's compound, makes such basic tasks far more difficult. U.S. intelligence forces are far more likely to locate al-Qaida figures when they talk on the phone, meet with associates, or otherwise expose themselves—the very things they need to do to smooth a leadership transition.
The risk for al-Zawahiri is not just to his personal safety but to al-Qaida's long-term health. The death of Bin Laden was a huge blow. Losing the new leader in short succession would send a message that the organization is near collapse. Because there is no obvious successor to al-Zawahiri (we al-Qaida watchers all have our money on different candidates), the disarray could snowball, leading to a decline in fundraising and recruitment that further weakens the group.
Those thrust into power after a charismatic leader falls sometimes reveal unanticipated depths or an unsuspected ability to build on their predecessor's legacy. Al-Zawahiri may have learned about leadership and changed his ideology under Osama Bin Laden's tutelage, and his long track record as a jihadist strategist makes it foolish to count him out. However, this is a time of opportunity for U.S. counterterrorism. Al-Zawahiri's hold on the leadership is unsteady, and constant pressure can further shake it and bring al-Qaida closer to collapse.