Can Zawahri Revive al Qaeda?

The likely successor to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahri, faces daunting challenges in trying to steer the al Qaeda terror network through an ideological crisis.

05.14.11 9:13 PM ET

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, al Qaeda, the loosely connected terrorist organization that he commanded from his lair in Pakistan, faces a crisis of leadership and ideology. Tasked with holding the group together is likely Ayman al Zawahri, the group's longtime second-in-command. From an organizational standpoint, Zawahri faces challenges daunting enough to make any Fortune 500 CEO quail—from a membership dismayed by the death of its leader, to potential rivals with superior credentials. All of this comes at a time when the network is struggling with relevance in the face of the Arab Spring revolutions and a deep sense of foreboding that further American-led takedowns are inevitable. Indeed, even if Zawahri successfully manages to rally his troops and create a new iteration of bin Laden's terrorist group, the trove of intelligence that the United States took from bin Laden's compound likely means that whoever replaces the charismatic Saudi millionaire could soon share his fate.

When he met bin Laden in Pakistan in the late 1980s, Zawahri was an Egyptian militant intent on overthrowing the country's secular government. In joining forces with bin Laden, Zawahri agreed to shift his focus and target the "far enemy," as bin Laden termed the U.S. Bin Laden believed the U.S. was propping up corrupt regimes throughout the Muslim world. His solution: Use direct terrorist attacks to play on America's lack of resolve and force the U.S. to withdraw from the region. Only then, bin Laden felt, could he achieve his goal—the creation of a world-spanning Islamic caliphate.

Yet as the Arab Spring revolutions have spread across the Middle East, and as the U.S. has wisely supported grassroots movements in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, al Qaeda has come to struggle for relevance. When bin Laden was at the helm, the group could continue on ideological autopilot, ignoring the implications of the regional tumult. But with bin Laden gone, the group's incoherence has been laid bare. One of al Qaeda's guiding assumptions—that the U.S. would never allow its corrupt allies to fall unless it was forced out of the Middle East—has proven to be false. And if Zawahri is going to hold al Qaeda together over the longer term, he will eventually have to acknowledge that this assumption was wrong, as part of the process of retooling the group's ideology.

“Even if the Egypt-born al Qaeda leader is able to earn the loyalty of his fellow fighters, remaining in charge of the global terrorist network may prove far more difficult for him than it was for bin Laden.”

In trying to create a unifying world view, Zawahri may also be pulled in different directions by potential rivals. One of al Qaeda's strongest regional branches is in Yemen, a country embroiled in its own revolution, as tribesmen are agitating for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now considered a senior al Qaeda ideologue, Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born former imam, who is hiding in Yemen, may argue that al Qaeda should focus on toppling the Saleh regime, even as a senior Libyan member of al Qaeda, Abu Yahya al Libi, pushes for his country to become the new epicenter of the group's violent activities.

Perhaps the most serious rival to Zawahri is Saif al Adel, a former colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces. A decade ago, al Adel reportedly had a competing vision for al Qaeda's direction, which included his initial opposition to the September 11 attacks. Instead, al Adel reportedly wanted to sap America's strength by drawing its forces into regional armed conflict, particularly in Iran.

In the end, whether or not Zawahri assumes command of al Qaeda may have as much to do with loyalty as it does with ideology. Al Qaeda has long been organized and bureaucratic, yet it was also characterized by a cult of personality, which revolved around bin Laden. When joining the collective, members were required to swear allegiance to bin Laden personally, not to al Qaeda as a group. And it's unclear that such allegiance would automatically transfer to Zawahri when other senior members have more relevant experience. Compared with both Abu Yahya al Libi and Saif al Adel, for instance, Zawahri is at best a dilettante in military matters, and al Awlaki appears to be far more dynamic and inspirational.

Even if the Egypt-born al Qaeda leader is able to earn the loyalty of his fellow fighters, remaining in charge of the global terrorist network may prove far more difficult for him than it was for bin Laden. The attack on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound most certainly disabused al Qaeda members of the notion that Pakistan could remain a critical safe haven. The intelligence that Navy SEALs procured in the raid against bin Laden is producing "new leads every hour," according to a recent statement by the Central Intelligence Agency. And such information could eventually provide the basis for the systematic dismantling of al Qaeda's infrastructure.

Going forward, Pakistan may even lend considerable help in taking out senior al Qaeda officials. The discovery of bin Laden, hiding near the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, was a tremendous embarrassment for the Pakistani army. Whether it was complicit in hiding bin Laden or not, the army, as well as the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, may now feel pressure to dispatch any leads on Zawahri's whereabouts to their American counterparts.

If the U.S. does manage to kill and capture Zawahri, al Qaeda will likely live on in the form of its regional chapters. But with a bit of luck, the American triumph in Abbottabad could prove to be the beginning of the end for both Ayman al Zawahri and al Qaeda as a centrally organized, global terrorist network.

Art Keller is a writer focusing Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He was previously a case officer in the Counter-Proliferation Division of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, where he served in Central Europe, Baghdad, and Pakistan.