After weeks of waiting and speculation, Ayman al Zawahri has officially taken over the leadership of al Qaeda. Whether the new chairman of terror will be able to resurrect the organization after the death of its charismatic, visionary leader - or simply watch as internal and external forces tear it apart - remains to be seen.
Zawahri certainly has the bona-fides to lead the group. He has been an al Qaeda activist since the mid-1980s and is a veteran of the Mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which gives him a great deal of legitimacy in jihadist circles. He has long been the group’s ideological leader even though he doesn’t have a theology background. He was one of the key planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Having been at Osama bin Laden’s side through times of turmoil and triumph, he can claim to offer a level of continuity unmatched by anyone else. The fact that his wife and two of his six children were killed in a 2001 U.S. airstrike also boosts his credentials; he has a score to settle.
Al Qaeda - and Islamic extremism in general - is facing a key moment of opportunity. The disruptions sweeping the Middle East are dislodging pro-U.S. authoritarian rulers such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who have long been on al Qaeda’s hit list. The destabilizing effects of the Arab uprisings and the developing power vacuums present openings that the radical Islamists have not seen in decades. Al Qaeda openly mocks the Obama administration’s argument that terrorism is discredited because change in the region isn’t coming through violence. To extremists, violence is simply a means to an end, a necessity imposed by circumstances. Zawahri has stated that if they can erect the Islamic Caliphate through peaceful processes, so much the better. When that’s not an option, the blood flows.
All may not be well in al Qaeda, however. In the week after bin Laden was killed, the Saudi daily al Watan reported that Zawahri had set his boss up. By this account, the courier who unwittingly led the Americans to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was actually very aware of what he was doing, and was working for Zawahri. “The Egyptian faction of al Qaeda led by Zawahri was de-facto running the militant group, after bin Laden was taken ill in 2004 and they were trying to take full control,” the paper alleged. Whether or not this story is true, it points to a critical problem for the new al Qaeda leadership. The most important funding streams for al Qaeda have come from Saudi Arabia and were based on bin Laden’s personal network of friendships and influence. These funding sources won’t automatically continue under Zawahri as the donors have a different relationship with him. Those who want to believe the organization’s Egyptian No. 2 sold out its Saudi leader to the hated Americans have a good pretext for finding other outlets for their checkbook jihad.
Zawahri will have to pull off something spectacular to convince al Qaeda’s financial backers that he has what it takes to give them a good return on their investment in violence. This is the main reason Americans should be worried that we are entering a very dangerous time.