Can Ayman al-Zawahiri hold al-Qaida together?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 12 2011 1:05 PM

Zawahiri's Big Challenge

Can Bin Laden's longtime No. 2 hold al-Qaida together?

Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Ayman al-Zawahiri

"The secret of successful managing," claimed legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel, "is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven't made up their minds." Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian jihadist who is presumed to be Osama Bin Laden's heir as head of al-Qaida, would do well to heed Stengel's advice. Al-Zawahiri, unlike Bin Laden, does not have the unabashed admiration of much of the jihadist community, and he has a history of angering and alienating other jihadists. He will find it hard to assume Bin Laden's mantle, and even if he does so, his hold on the leadership of al-Qaida may prove precarious.

On paper, al-Zawahiri's background seems perfect for an aspiring terrorist leader. Journalist Lawrence Wright reports that al-Zawahiri formed his first terrorist cell in 1966, when he was only 15 years old. He then plotted against the Egyptian regime, which, he felt, had surrendered its legitimacy by making peace with Israel and failing to establish an Islamic state. He then spent several years in Egypt's jails after some of his comrades assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and after his release he fled to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad. When al-Qaida was founded in 1988, al-Zawahiri was by Bin Laden's side. Like Bin Laden, he spent time in Sudan when Khartoum embraced jihadist terrorists in the early 1990s, and later he was with Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the runup to 9/11. After those devastating attacks, his role became perhaps even more important. Al-Zawahiri, designed al-Qaida's strategy and issued so many speeches that Brookings Institution terrorism analyst Bruce Riedel declared him al-Qaida's "Chatty Cathy."

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Al-Zawahiri came late to Bin Laden's view that the United States was the deeper source of the Muslim world's problems. He initially focused his fire on Egypt and other Arab regimes, even claiming "Jerusalem will not be conquered unless Cairo is conquered and the battle in Egypt and Algeria is won." His movement was crushed in Egypt, however, and the struggle against Algeria's regime stalled before degenerating into brutal slaughter of civilians. His group ran out of money, so by necessity as well as ideology he moved closer and closer to Bin Laden's anti-U.S. credo, embracing it wholeheartedly by 1998. After 9/11, a U.S. airstrike killed al-Zawahiri's wife and two of his sons, adding a personal motive to his already strong hatred of America.

While Bin Laden tried to transcend the divisions within the jihadist movement, al-Zawahiri often exacerbated them, especially by his denunciations of rival jihadist groups. He reserved particular vitriol for the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most important Islamist movement in the Arab world, and Hamas, a Brotherhood spinoff that runs Gaza. Such pronouncements may be the traditional job of the No. 2: He is the hatchet man, allowing the leader to get the glory. Part of it is clearly his personality, however. Al-Zawahiri waded into the numerous fights within the Egyptian jihadist movement in the 1980s and '90s. The movement divided over whom to attack, where to base themselves, and how much to cooperate with like-minded (but not like-minded-enough) Islamist movements. Al-Zawahiri would often bitterly castigate those he felt were insufficiently zealous.

Putting aside his divisive tendencies, his public statements prove that he is not as telegenic as his late Saudi companion, betraying a pedantic tone, overbearing manners, and impatience with his critics. Those who have met with Bin Laden often describe him as charismatic; no one says that about al-Zawahiri.

Although al-Zawahiri's time in Egypt's jails and his years in the jihadist movement—far longer than Bin Laden—give him street cred, jihadists are well aware of his shortcomings. In jail and under torture, al-Zawahiri betrayed his comrades. He later wrote "The toughest thing about captivity is forcing the mujahid [fighter in a holy cause], under the force of torture, to confess about his colleagues, to destroy his movement with his own hands, and offer his and his colleagues' secrets to the enemy." Perhaps even a hardened jihadist understands that the brutal ministrations of Egypt's Interior Ministry can force a man to talk, but this forgiveness surely tempers their admiration for al-Zawahiri.

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.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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