September 13, 2011
Zawahiri Next on Obama’s List
As expected, though quite belatedly, Al Qaeda has followed its former leader's succession plan, naming Ayman al Zawahiri as the head of the global hirabi organization. In a statement released Thursday, the group vowed to continue attacks on American and Israeli interests and to aide ongoing fighting in Somalia, Chechnya, and Palestine. President Obama's White House responded to the terror group's statement with strategic communications aimed at diminishing Zawahiri in the eyes of his subordinates whom, many accounts suggest, reserve less loyalty for the man than they did for his predecessor. Complicating matters for Zawahiri, he seeks to fill bin Laden's shoes at what may be the weakest strategic moment for Al Qaeda since its founding. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have not only obviated any impulse for hirabi attacks in a number of Muslim-majority countries, they have also shown the hirabi tactics and strategies to be unnecessary and significantly less successful than mass protests.
The Least Bad Man for a Difficult Job?
The former doctor and Egyptian Islamic Jihad member, Zawahiri has just turned 60 and is believed to be hiding out in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As acting deputy to the deceased Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri is perhaps best situated to take over the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda's Central organization in Afghanistan, but many analysts note that his managerial style has rubbed many of his operatives the wrong way, and that he may not possesses the charisma necessary to hold the group together during this difficult time. Zawahiri's relative inexperience in battle may also hamstring his efforts to cast himself as a hero to be emulated. As a senior Obama administration official has pointed out to ABC News, "Unlike many of al Qaeda's top members, Zawahiri has not had actual combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a 'soft image."
Zawahiri also takes the reins of a hirabi movement whose underlying raison d'etre has been significantly diminished since the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Why use terrorism -- nearly all who seek change in the Middle East must wonder -- when mass protest is so much more effective? Worse for the hirabi movement, Zawahiri is in many ways a poster-child (or poster-geriatric) for the long-term failures of violent terrorist approaches to revolution. He began his struggle against the secular authoritarian regime in Egypt over four decades ago. But when overthrow came in recent months, it was sparked not by a bloody campaign of polarizing violence, but by an Egyptian-American Google employee armed with a non-violent strategy and an excellent operational knowledge of social networking tools.
Hirabi Movement Strategically Anemic and Fracturing
Local terrorist groups -- deeply motivated by a desire to see fundamentalist Islam direct government policies -- may be asking themselves what there is to gain by transferring their loyalty oaths from the late bin Laden to the new al Zawahiri. By setting down their weapons and campaigning within civil society, they have everything to gain. By taking up arms against Americans now, they lose opportunities to concretize their policy vision in a formative moment of history and risk provoking American reprisals likely to kill them. The irrelevance of a "far enemy" strategy in this context probably drives the Al Qaeda statement's reference to Somalia, Chechnya, and Palestine -- places where violent struggle can be seen as potentially useful -- and their ommission of any reference to the Arab Spring or any of the countries experiencing it.
Faced with diminished loyalty and deep irrelevance, Al Qaeda Central is in desperate need for a win, but has few operatives to turn to in order to achieve it. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Qaeda's strongest unit at the moment, is being driven to ground by U.S. drone strikes and is distracted by the unrest in Yemen. And Al Qaeda Central, no doubt paranoid that bin Laden's file cache has revealed members' whereabouts, is clearly laying low if it takes them six weeks to announce their pre-determined succession plan. Some other affiliate in the network could take it upon themselves to attack the U.S., but none has successfully done so in the decade since 9/11 and there is no clear reason to suspect they have the capability or inclination now.
Obama Ready to Fight
In the face of all this, President Obama's strategic communications are spot on. They send a signal to doubting hirabis that Zawahiri is not even feared or respected by his adversaries. Whether or not hirabis agree with the assessments that Zawahiri is a 'soft' 'armchair general,' this language is very different than that reserved for bin Laden. And, as the anonymous White House official interviewed by ABC stated, "no matter who is in charge, he will have a difficult time leading al Qaeda while focusing on his own survival as the group continues to hemorrhage key members responsible for planning and training operatives for terrorist attacks." Whether that hemorrhaging is literal or figurative, the message is clear: the White House smells blood and will be pressing its attack.