PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1
Scarier Than Bin Laden
We don't usually think of terrorists as grand strategists. We're more likely to dismiss them as crazed killers or mindless misanthropes. But as another anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches -- amid reports from U.S. intelligence sources that al-Qaeda is marshaling its reconstituted forces for a spectacular new attack on the United States -- it's time to recognize the strategic vision that has driven and shaped the terrorist movement for the past six years.
Even more urgently, we need to drop our preoccupation with Osama bin Laden, which is once again being fueled by his latest video. But Bin Laden's days as the movement's guiding star are over. The United States' most formidable nemesis now is not the Saudi terrorist leader but his nominal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Part impresario, part visionary, bin Laden made himself and the terrorist organization he co-founded into household words. Today they are paired global "brands" as recognizable and interchangeable as any leading corporation and its high-visibility CEO. But mounting evidence suggests that his time of active involvement in al-Qaeda operations is behind him. Forced into hiding, he has ceased to be a major force in al-Qaeda planning and decision-making and, even more astonishing, in its public relations activities.
According to Asian intelligence sources, it has been two years since bin Laden reportedly chaired a meeting of al-Qaeda's Majlis al-Shura -- the movement's most senior deliberative body. The new video is his first since 2004. Two video messages in nearly three years may demonstrate his enduring symbolic appeal, but they are hardly proof of his continued command of al-Qaeda's foot soldiers.
While bin Laden putters about in his premature forced retirement, making the odd cameo appearance, Zawahiri has taken control of al-Qaeda. He has not only revived the movement's fortunes but has also made it once again the global threat poised to strike the United States that was depicted in the National Intelligence Estimate released in July.
And, almost unnoticed, the low-key, monotonic Zawahiri has become the organization's new public face. Over the past two years, the Egyptian terrorist has issued about 30 statements on a range of subjects -- pontifications on Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir and Pakistan, alongside al-Qaeda's bread-and-butter condemnations of the United States, Britain, Israel, the West and its various other enemies.
Zawahiri has also overseen a quadrupling of al-Qaeda video releases in the same period. The tapes have featured himself; Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam al-Ameriki ("Azzam the American"), the al-Qaeda terrorist from Southern California; the two suicide bombers responsible for the London transit attacks in July 2005; and other jihadist luminaries, all as part of a PR campaign to keep al-Qaeda in the news and to ensure the continued resonance of its message.
He may lack bin Laden's charisma, but Zawahiri is the superior strategist. It was he who, more than a decade ago, defined al-Qaeda's strategy in terms of "far" and "near" enemies. The United States is the "far enemy" whose defeat, he argued, was an essential prerequisite to the elimination of the "near enemy" -- the corrupt and authoritarian anti-Islamic regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia that could not remain in power without U.S. support. Zawahiri's strategic vision set off the chain of events that led to 9/11.
Even more critically, Zawahiri charted a way forward for al-Qaeda in late 2001, when it was widely believed to be on the brink of annihilation. Despite the deaths of his wife and only son in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan that November, he did not repine. Even while on the run from CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces and the Afghan Northern Alliance, he came up with an uncompromisingly bellicose yet crystal-clear blueprint for al-Qaeda's revival.
His treatise, published in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Alsharq al-Awsat in December 2001 and titled "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," painted a picture of Islam under siege by a predatory, Western-dominated world in which "there is no solution without jihad." He argued for:
1. The need to inflict maximum casualties on the opponent, no matter how much time and effort such operations take, for this is the language understood by the West.
2. The need to concentrate on martyrdom operations as the most successful way to inflict damage and the least costly in casualties to the mujaheddin.