Ayman Zawahiri, the new leader of al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, inherits an organization beset on many fronts. He and his fellow al Qaeda leaders must fear meeting bin Laden’s fate. Even worse, al Qaeda is excoriated in Islamist circles for its excesses, and risks irrelevance as the Arab Spring unfolds. Yet al Qaeda is also the most famous terrorist group in the world, and its affiliates remain strong. What are its prospects for the future?
Zawahiri’s most immediate challenge is internal. Although he was long groomed as Bin Laden’s successor, and al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula has pledged its loyalty to him, it is hard to unite the fissiparous jihadist community. Zawahiri lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and is a divisive figure. Togetherness and cooperation are particularly difficult to achieve when the rain of missiles from U.S. drones makes it difficult for terrorist leaders to gather or even communicate.
Zawahiri also must confront the political earthquakes shaking the Middle East. Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and other countries pose a challenge to al Qaeda’s message that only anti-U.S. violence can bring change to the region. Fortunately for Zawahiri, the operating environment in much of the Arab world is freer than it has been in decades. The Libyan uprising and Egyptian revolution resulted in the opening of jails, releasing many jihadists. Some have laid down arms, but others may rejoin the struggle. In Yemen, the collapse of the Saleh regime has increased AQAP’s freedom of action, enabling it to expand operations in many parts of the country. Even in countries where the regimes remain intact, their security services will now focus on student demonstrators and intellectuals, not jihadists—because democratic activists, not terrorists, are the biggest threat to their hold on power.
Fortunately for Zawahiri, it will be easy to keep lambasting the United States. Although the Obama administration played an important role in helping ease out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. forces were integral to ending Moammar Qaddafi’s rule in Libya, the United States remains deeply unpopular in the Arab world. Even though U.S. forces are officially supposed to end their presence in Iraq at the end of the year, significant numbers are likely to remain in Iraq in some capacity. Although these forces will play a lesser role in safeguarding the country, and U.S. officials hope they will stay off the front pages, their presence still angers many in the region. And of course the United States will stay in Afghanistan for years to come.
Nor will the United States end its cozy relationship with the region’s dictators anytime soon. Already, the United States has turned a blind eye as Saudi Arabia has tried to stop demonstrators from toppling Bahrain’s al-Khalifa family. In addition, Washington will be caught between its desire to maintain good relationships with other friendly dictators like Jordan’s King Abdullah and its need to work with new democrats. This balancing act will leave everyone dissatisfied and give al Qaeda fodder for a public relations offensive. And of course the United States and Israel will remain close friends.
The inevitable disappointments of Arab-world Islamists will also provide al Qaeda with a fertile atmosphere for recruitment. In Egypt, Islamists are expected to do well in coming elections. But they are not expected to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel or forcibly Islamicize society. Such pragmatism meets with applause internationally, but it may anger the more radical and idealistic members of these groups. Eventually there will be charges that moderate Islamist leaders are selling out, charges that Zawahiri has already made and will make again.
It will be tricky for al Qaeda to navigate Pakistan. In Iraq, when al Qaeda tried to seize power in parts of the country, it alienated locals. In Pakistan, al Qaeda has done a better job of helping Pakistani jihadists in their fight and steadily swaying them toward its more radical and international agenda rather than taking the lead itself. And the Pakistani government weakly lurches from crisis to crisis. Yet al Qaeda’s position in Pakistan is delicate. The Pakistani government is fickle—cooperating with, tolerating, and battling jihadists, often simultaneously. Similarly, too much chaos in the country risks forcing al Qaeda to devote itself to protecting its position in Pakistan to the exclusion of other goals.
Nevertheless, al Qaeda must strive for relevance—a particularly hard task for Zawahiri, whose lack of charisma makes it hard for him to reach out beyond the narrow ranks of jihadists. This desire may push al Qaeda to launch attacks prematurely or on unguarded and purely civilian targets. Such attacks will generate the news coverage al Qaeda wants, but generate less admiration than terrorist “spectaculars” such as 9/11, even among those who see the United States as the enemy of Muslims around the world.
The al Qaeda core must also prove its relevance to Muslims in Europe and the United States—and make sure affiliates like AQAP don’t eclipse the core organization. In part, Zawahiri can take comfort in that al Qaeda ‘s ideas and goals are now at least part of the debate in Islamist circles, even if they are not widely accepted. Even more important, Muslims in Europe and the United States have shown up to fight in jihadist hotbeds like Yemen and Somalia, as well as Pakistan. Turning these foreign fighters into international terrorists is an al Qaeda specialty, and these Westerners’ familiarity with the United States and Europe makes them especially dangerous.
It would be a mistake to count Zawahiri and al Qaeda out. Al Qaeda has been declared dead repeatedly, only to rise again, while Zawahiri’s long militant record deserves respect. Constant pressure can bring al Qaeda closer to collapse, and prevent it from exploiting any future opportunities. But such a campaign will not result in immediate victory.