07.10.11

Al Qaeda’s Ominous Silence

The new defense secretary says the terror cell is on the ropes. And Osama bin Laden’s replacement has been greeted quietly in the group’s ranks. Bruce Riedel on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s big challenge.

There is a puzzling silence in the global jihad that may portend a lack of confidence in al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

It’s been several weeks now since Al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan announced that the Egyptian doctor and longtime second-in-command Zawahiri is the new emir of the terror gang. Individual Qaeda figures have come out and praised the choice. But only one of Al Qaeda's regional affiliates or franchises has publicly hailed it. Only the Shabaab al Mujahedin in Somalia has publicly signed on as a group to the decision to make Zawahiri the new No. 1. 

Al Qaeda's much more important affiliates in Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa have remained mute on the choice. They have released other news bulletins, so we know they haven’t suddenly come down with laryngitis. Individual members have made favorable noises, but silence has been the group response. 

Al Qaeda is not collapsing; indeed, strategic patience has long been one of its strengths. The terror cell believes time is on its side, so it often speaks out late in the game. This quiet certainly does not mean there is a rebellion against the doctor. No one in Al Qaeda is publicly contesting his selection or denying his authority. And endorsements may yet come.

No one in Al Qaeda is publicly contesting his selection or denying his authority. But there does seem to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

But there does seem to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Zawahiri has seemed old and tired in most of his statements this year, and he has never been a charismatic figure. He can be deadly dull when he tries to explain why Pakistan is not Islamic enough or how Napoleon tried to create Israel in 1798. Yet Zawahiri is also a ruthless killer. According to Al Qaeda, he ordered the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. He helped kill seven CIA officers and a Jordanian prince in 2009 in Afghanistan using a triple agent. No one should underestimate his ideological role in Al Qaeda or his operational command. 

Maybe his fellow terrorists are hedging their bets a bit, waiting to see if Zawahiri is up to the challenge of filling bin Laden's role. They've heard the Americans say Al Qaeda's core is on the ropes. Perhaps they are looking for it to strike back.