On Thursday, Zawahiri was declared al-Qaeda’s new leader, formalizing an ascension that has been underway since bin Laden’s death last month. But while expected, his promotion was widely viewed as a blow to the jihadist movement. U.S. intelligence officials, terrorism experts and even the Egyptian’s former cohorts say a Zawahiri-led al-Qaeda will be far more discordant, dysfunctional and perhaps disloyal than it was under bin Laden.
Whether it also will be less effective remains to be seen.
“If he manages to pull off an operation, al-Qaeda will be back in business,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism analyst at the Swedish National Defense College. “We won’t be having these conversations about whether they’ll be loyal to him.”
Al-Qaeda’s general command announced the promotion in a statement carried on jihadist Web sites. The statement said Zawahiri would continue in bin Laden’s footsteps and urged Muslims to fight “against the disbelieving invaders who attack the lands of Islam, headed by Crusader America.”
Zawahiri, a surgeon who once commanded his own extremist group in Egypt, had been the presumed successor to bin Laden after the al-Qaeda founder was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Still, some U.S. officials and terrorism analysts had speculated that Zawahiri might face competition from other candidates, such as the former Egyptian military officer Saif al-Adel or the Libyan jihadist Abu Yahya al-Libi.
The problem, experts agree, is Zawahiri’s disagreeableness. While he has been al-Qaeda’s ideological and operational heavyweight for more than a decade, he also is considered rigid, truculent and lacking in charisma. Some U.S. officials and terrorism experts say it is unclear whether he can rebuild an organization that has been under siege by U.S. military and intelligence forces.
“This is an organization that, for its entire history, has been centered around the persona of its leader,” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. intelligence community’s views of Zawahiri. “It’s an open question whether Zawahiri will be able to maintain that level of personal leadership.”
An inner rage
Azzam, the ideologue’s son who lived in bin Laden houses in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and came to know Zawahiri well, said the Egyptian physician appeared animated by an inner rage that comrades suspected was a legacy of the torture he endured during his years in Egyptian jail cells in the 1980s.
“He was bent by his prison experience, and it affected his whole personality,” said Azzam, himself a former militant jihadist who lives in Jordan. “He had no tolerance for talking with someone who didn’t hold his ideas.”
Azzam recalled that Zawahiri would feign respect for Azzam’s father, Abdullah, a cleric who helped found the Palestinian militant movement known as Hamas and rallied Muslims to join the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But then Zawahiri would denounce Abdullah Azzam publicly at the local mosque for failing to embrace his vision for violent jihad against the West. The elder Azzam was killed by unknown assailants in a 1989 bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan.