Scarier Than Bin Laden

By Bruce Hoffman
Sunday, September 9, 2007

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.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq presented al-Qaeda with the opportunity to put his arguments into practice. As long ago as the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri had explained al-Qaeda's strategy in response to what he was already decrying as a repressive U.S.-led occupation. "We thank God," he declared in September 2003, "for appeasing us with the dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."

Sure enough, what U.S. military commanders had optimistically described four years ago as the jihadist "magnet" or "flytrap" designed to capture al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq was having precisely the opposite effect, according to Zawahiri's plan: It was enmeshing the U.S. military in a debilitating war of attrition.

The U.S. entanglement in Iraq had an even more incalculable benefit for al-Qaeda. Our preoccupation first with an escalating insurgency and more recently with an incipient civil war consumed the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence communities at a time when bin Laden, Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda commanders were in desperate straits. With the United States trapped in Iraq, bin Laden and Zawahiri were able to save their own skins. For Zawahiri, Iraq was a means of distracting U.S. attention while al-Qaeda regrouped under his aegis.

This, in essence, was the analysis that outgoing Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte offered in congressional testimony last January. The annual threat assessment he presented to the Senate intelligence committee painted a disquieting picture of an al-Qaeda no longer "on the run," as President Bush had described it just three months earlier, but now incontrovertibly on the march.

Iraq has also figured prominently in Zawahiri's plans to reinvigorate the jihadist cause and recapture its momentum. By portraying U.S. efforts in Iraq as an oppressive occupation, he and al-Qaeda's hyperactive media arm, al-Sahab ("the clouds" in Arabic), have been able to propagate an image of Islam as perpetually on the defensive, with no alternative but to take up arms against U.S. aggression. The ongoing violence in Iraq -- coupled with the memory of the Abu Ghraib abuses and with the Guantanamo Bay detentions -- has contributed appreciably to the United States' increasingly poor standing in the Muslim world.

Finally, the appointment of a Zawahiri protege, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Ayyub "the Egyptian"), to succeed the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq further solidified Zawahiri's influence over operations in that country and the implementation of the terrorism battle plan identified years ago in "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner."

Under Zawahiri's leadership, the post-9/11 al-Qaeda has shown itself to be remarkably nimble and adaptive -- able to compensate for and even obviate some of our most effective countermeasures. Last summer's plot to bomb more than 10 U.S. airliners is a case in point. Instead of more accessible targets such as subways and commuter trains, hotels and tourist destinations, this plan was aimed at perhaps the most internationally hardened target since 9/11: commercial aviation. Its leader was another Zawahiri loyalist from Egypt, Abu Ubaydah al-Masri, al-Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

This alarming development called into question some of our most basic assumptions about al-Qaeda's capabilities and intentions, given that the movement seems to retain the same grand homicidal ambitions it demonstrated on 9/11. Its members may be dispersed, but al-Qaeda is once again capable of planning and executing bold terrorist strikes.

Thanks to Zawahiri, instead of al-Qaeda R.I.P., we're facing an al-Qaeda that has risen from the grave.


Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, is a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center and the author of "Inside Terrorism."

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