Al-Qaeda has officially made its deputy-leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, its chief. Zawahiri is a divisive but deadly figure, commonly believed to be more important to Al-Qaeda operations than even Osama Bin Laden. This makes him America’s number one target, and it will be a struggle for him to manage the group’s vast networks while protecting his own life.
It took Al-Qaeda’s leadership six weeks to name Zawahiri as their commander. He has long been Bin Laden’s second-in-command, and so his appointment was expected to be an immediate development. This delay indicates the terrorist group’s top officials are having difficulty communicating, and may mean there is apprehension about Zawahiri. His new post will also force him to undertake stronger security measures that could result in isolation, causing fractures within Al-Qaeda.
“The question is whether Zawahiri…can hold these groups together in some kind of cohesive movement, or whether it begins to splinter, and they become essentially regional terrorist groups that are more focused on regional targets,” Defense Secretary Gates said.
Zawahiri is known to be a polarizing figure within Al-Qaeda, and does not have nearly the same respect as Bin Laden did. One extremist cleric with contacts in Al-Qaeda told TIME Magazine, “Nobody I met liked al-Zawahiri, but he is the guy moving things.” He also claimed that Zawahiri had been “isolating Bin Laden with the excuse of protecting him.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told FrontPage that Zawahiri does face a problem in winning the confidence of the group’s ranks.
“The kind of reverence that jihadis who had met bin Laden display for him is not reflected in those who have met Zawahiri. Some terrorist analysts hope that this, in addition to the fact that Zawahiri is Egyptian rather than Saudi, means that some of al-Qaeda’s financiers will be less enthusiastic about giving money to the organization,” Garteinstein-Ross said.
A section of Al-Qaeda’s statement announcing Zawahiri’s ascension may be evidence that the group is seeking to improve ties with other Islamist forces. It also confirms the group’s commitment to instituting Sharia law, rather than just forcing changes in the foreign policy of the West.
“We offer our hands and open our hearts to cooperate with everyone working on supporting Islam…to support the Sharia so the Islamic homelands could be ruling, not ruled…and until every constitution and oppose it are invalidated,” it reads.
Daveed Garteinstein-Ross told FrontPage that he believes that Al-Qaeda’s top leaders will be focused on reconstituting their capabilities.
“In light of bin Laden’s death, we can expect the group’s central leadership to lay low and attempt to rebuild….Beginning in 2002, after the loss of al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan, its leadership focused on regenerating in Pakistan while al-Qaeda affiliates stepped to the fore in terms of operational activity,” he explained. He predicted that this would cause some analysts to mistakenly underestimate the role of the central leadership.
However, the difficulties that Zawahiri faces do not mean that he is an ineffective operational commander. In fact, the State Department concluded in 2009 he had “emerged as Al-Qaeda’s strategic and operational planner.” He created his first terror cell in Egypt when he was only 15 years old, and he used to lead Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was jailed for his group’s role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Raymond Ibrahim writes that “Zawahiri is a wily, dangerous and imposing leader who should be considered no less of a threat — and perhaps even more so — than his predecessor.”
Credible reports of Zawahiri’s movements are more common than they were for Bin Laden, underscoring his operational importance. Luckily, this movement increases the possibility that his location will be pinpointed. He has admitted to being nearly captured or killed four times. In January 2006, a strike on a house in Damadola in Bajaur nearly killed him. The Pakistani military captured the area in March 2010, discovering the mud hut Zawahiri confirms he stayed at in 2004 where he was nearly killed, along with a network of 156 caves used as lines of defense.
Little information is publicly available about Zawahiri’s location, but one report in May 2009 stated he was in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan in Pakistan. This is the same location where Mullah Omar and other top Taliban leaders have found safe harbor. Intelligence gained from the raid on Bin Laden’s compound is said to have yielded important clues about Zawahiri’s location. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee says, “I can’t say it’s imminent, but I do believe we’re hot on the trail.”
The Pakistanis claim they have arrested an individual in Karachi who served as a courier between Bin Laden and Zawahiri. The U.S. has reportedly given Pakistan until July to cooperate in hunting down five terrorist leaders, including Zawahiri, before unilateral action is taken.
The U.S. must not fall into complacency because of Bin Laden’s death. Zawahiri will have to do something dramatic to prove himself as a leader and encourage Al-Qaeda’s sympathizers. For Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda, it is more important than ever to carry out a major attack.
Ryan Mauro is the founder of WorldThreats.com, the National Security Adviser for the Christian Action Network and an analyst with Wikistrat. He can be contacted at TDCAnalyst@aol.com.
Tags: Global Radical Islam