In the 100-plus days since Osama bin Laden’s death, his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been a busy man. He has issued a series of audio messages reshaping al Qaeda’s message to adapt to the Arab revolutions and consolidated his grip on al Qaeda’s numerous franchises. If he is under pressure, he is not showing it.
In a message released this weekend, Zawahiri again mourns the loss of his predecessor and promises that al Qaeda will “pursue America, which killed the imam of the mujahedeen and threw his body into the sea.” Noting that America’s longtime friends in the Arab world, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, have been toppled from power and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been driven out of the country, Zawahiri says America’s position in the Arab world is “staggering” and will soon collapse completely. He urges supporters of al Qaeda to engage in a vigorous debate about the best strategies and tactics to defeat America.
This is the latest in a dozen messages released so far this year by al Qaeda’s As Sahab (In the Clouds) media forum and featuring the Egyptian terror leader. Already he has more than tripled his production of messages from his pace in 2010, when he put out only four. Two of those were extremely short; all these have been lengthy. Zawahiri’s operational tempo as a propagandist for global jihad has accelerated even further since bin Laden’s demise.
And his message has sharpened. At the start of 2011, he and al Qaeda seemed taken by surprise by the Arab revolutions and confused about what to say. The revolutions in Tunis and Cairo did not fit well with al Qaeda’s ideology—they were popular movements calling not for jihad but for a peaceful transfer of power. Twitter, not terror, seemed to be the agent of change in Tahrir Square.
Now Zawahiri and al Qaeda have adapted. They have jumped enthusiastically on the revolutionary bandwagon, and the revolutions have become much more violent, as the regimes in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen have used brutal repression to stay in power. Al Qaeda’s message that jihad and violence are the only path to changing the Islamic world looks more timely when Arab autocrats resort to violence to hold onto their palaces. Zawahiri urges his listeners to use the new opportunities in the instability racking the Middle East to build safe havens, attack America and Israel, and exploit the downfall of the old police states that repressed al Qaeda for years.
Zawahiri’s most recent message on the Egyptian revolution, his seventh on Egypt this year, emphasizes that America is trying to steal the revolution from the people by using the Army to hold in place a pro-U.S. regime that will keep the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Zawahiri praises Islamic groups in the Sinai Peninsula that have attacked police stations there and the pipeline that sends Egyptian natural gas to Israel. Stabbing his finger in the air and armed with an AK-47, Zawahiri appears filled with determination. It must be a heady moment for him, as he watches his old nemesis Mubarak being led into prison in Cairo, into the same kind of steel jail pen that Zawahiri stood in 30 years ago for helping to assassinate Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Zawahiri has to be almost gleeful at the sight of Mubarak being accused of torture and murder.
In Syria, Zawahiri has called the regime of Bashar al-Assad a “partner of America in the war on Islam” for fighting al Qaeda in the past and a secret ally of Israel for maintaining the peace on the Golan Heights ceasefire lines for decades. Zawahiri urged Syrians last month to wage jihad until Assad is driven from power, an Islamic state is created, and “we raise up the victorious banners of jihad atop the beloved, stolen Jerusalem.” The message is clear: Al Qaeda is an enthusiastic partner in the revolutions that should not compromise with America and should break all the peace deals with Israel and create a Sharia state across Arabia.
Zawahiri has also been gaining somewhat belated endorsements as the new amir of al Qaeda from its various franchises around the Muslim world. The Shabab al Mujahedin movement in Somalia was among the first to endorse him. Franchises in Iraq and North Africa have also supported his selection by al Qaeda’s governing shura council. Now al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the powerful group in Yemen, has given him a full endorsement. Its leader, Abu Baseer al Wuhayshi, and its ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, have both come out with praise for the Egyptian. This comes as reports have surfaced that AQAP is experimenting with the deadly toxin ricin for future terror attacks and after the group apparently tried to assassinate Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef in Jedda this summer in his armor-plated limousine.
Al Qaeda is under a great deal of pressure in Pakistan, where Zawahiri is presumably hiding out. But he is not showing much sign of it. His pace of activity is close to an all-time high, and he is trying hard to catch up with the changes in his homeland and the rest of Arabia. It is safe to assume that behind the scenes, al Qaeda is also trying hard to hit back at America. It is way too soon to be writing al Qaeda’s obituary.