The former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit is pushing back against suggestions that al-Qaeda is on the brink of collapse, and that its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, isn’t up to the task.
Michael Scheuer, who ran the unit from 1996 to 1999, says in a provocative new essay that, while Zawahiri is taking charge of al-Qaeda in difficult circumstances, he is inheriting an organization that was built to last. Bin Laden, he argues, created a network that “could survive both a war against the U.S. superpower backed by its NATO vassals and his own capture or death.”
“We will see in the next few years if bin Laden was the indispensable glue that kept al-Qaeda together or if his skill, his leadership and its nearly 25 years of being institutionalized as an organization created a survivable entity,” Scheuer writes in the latest issue of the National Interest, a bimonthly foreign policy journal. “My own bet is that al-Qaeda will survive.”
U.S. officials have said that while al-Qaeda’s offshoots, particularly in Yemen, still pose a grave danger to national security, the group’s core leadership, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has been ravaged by years of drone strikes, effectively extinguishing the threat of a catastrophic attack against the United States. They have also said that Zawahiri’s abrasive and often divisive style, and his Egyptian roots and focus, will limit his ability to lead al-Qaeda.
It took the group a month after bin Laden’s death to anoint the Egyptian-born surgeon as its new leader.
Scheuer portrays analyses of Zawahiri’s weaknesses as being outmoded, pointing out that they are largely based on his tenure as the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, before he merged his group with bin Laden’s.
“A careful reading of al-Zawahiri’s enormous literary output … shows bin Laden’s impact on him was profound. From being an Egypt-centric fighter, he became an anti-U.S. firebrand; from being obsessively clandestine, he became an ace media manipulator and propagandist; and from being a cold-blooded and fairly indiscriminate killer, he became more circumspect and careful,” Scheuer writes.
Al-Zawahiri, he adds, “will never be bin Laden, but there is also zero evidence that he is a reckless, supremely egotistical fool bent on self- and organizational immolation.”
Full essay is here. Worth a read.