Ayman al-Zawahiri is Al Qaeda's thinker—its key ideological spokesman and analyst—but he is also a ruthless operative who has masterminded terrorist attacks for three decades. The group he inherits is on the defensive but far from defeated. Since the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden last month, jihadist chat rooms and websites have buzzed with calls for Zawahiri to become the new amir of Al Qaeda. Now the general command of al Qaeda't al-Jihad, as the group is formally known, has made it official and announced he is the amir.
Zawahiri was born to an upper-class family in Cairo known for producing diplomats and doctors. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood at an early age but found it too moderate for his taste. His first book was a scathing attack on the Brotherhood for its timidity. As a participant in the 1981 plot to kill Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel, he was imprisoned, tortured, and then sent into exile. After fighting in Afghanistan with the mujahedin and meeting bin Laden, he created his own terror group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and wandered the world raising funds and planning murder. He visited the United States, Europe, Africa, and Russia before settling in Afghanistan as bin Laden's in-house ideologue and deputy.
Zawahiri blames America for Islam's troubles, its dictators, and its squabbles. He particularly criticizes America's alliance with Israel, which he sees as the root of all evil. A prolific writer, he has laid out Al Qaeda's ideology in several books, most recently publishing one that calls for an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s announcement of his new title includes a promise that the group will never stop its terrorist campaign until Israel, America's "stepdaughter," is destroyed.
But Zawahiri is also a master terrorist planner. His Egyptian Islamic Jihad blew up Egypt's embassy in Islamabad in 1995, and he was involved in the 1998 East Africa embassy attacks, 9/11 itself, and many other plots since. He gloated over the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, Al Qaeda's most significant operation since 9/11, and made himself the bait in Al Qaeda's 2009 triple-agent sting that killed seven CIA operatives. Now he will try to rally a movement weakened by the loss of its charismatic leader and the deaths of other key leaders in Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan this spring.
His top priority will remain Pakistan, Al Qaeda's key base and the most important Muslim country in the world. Spies and informants belonging to Al Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba have thoroughly penetrated the Pakistani Army, tipping their leaders off to raids in advance and helping them infiltrate into the most sensitive Army and Navy bases in the country. The officer corps is filled with jihadist sympathizers all the way to the top, and someone within it almost certainly knew that for five years bin Laden had been living a mile from Pakistan’s West Point.
But Zawahiri has to know he is now High Value Target No. 1, and his shelf life is finite. He was caught off guard by the Arab Spring, and he floundered for more than two months as he tried to figure out how to react. For a time he talked more about Napoleon's “secret links to Zionism” than about what was happening in Cairo, and he found his ideological footing only after violence replaced Twitter in Arab capitals from Damascus to Tripoli.
Now Al Qaeda is the Arab revolution’s cheerleader—and much more than that in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is part of a jihadist surge in the east and south of Yemen that is creating miniature jihadist emirates along the Gulf of Aden. The Saudis are scared to death that Al Qaeda's foothold on the Arabian Peninsula is growing every day. Zawahiri does not have bin Laden's family ties to Yemen, but he knows its strategic importance. He also lacks bin Laden's charisma. For some jihadists he is too much a thinker and too critical of other Islamists. His ideology has been on the back foot since Tahrir Square. But like the organization he now runs, he is agile and adaptive. We should not underestimate him.