It’s been a rough morning for Ayman al-Zawahiri. A day after taking the helm of al-Qaeda, the headlines don’t look good.
In The Washington Post: Zawahiri faces hurdles as bin Laden successor. In the New York Times: Qaeda selection of its chief is said to reflect its flaws.
In the Guardian, experts are questioning “whether Zawahiri can unite al-Qaida’s factions.”
Even at the Pentagon, the U.S. secretary of defense said the new head of al-Qaeda lacks the “peculiar charisma” of his predecessor.
And as if that all weren’t bad enough, today marks the six-month anniversary of what might be one of the greatest existential threats yet to al-Qaeda: the Arab Spring.
The protests that have roiled the Middle East have shown the terrorist network to be out of step with the desires of many in the region. Instead of calling for a caliphate, the people in places like Egypt and Libya were calling simply for an end to autocratic regimes and an opportunity to make the most of their lives. The popular uprisings, at least in the short term, have succeeded in marginalizing al-Qaeda.
For Zawahiri, though, the news isn’t all bad. Six months on, the blooms of the Arab Spring are fading. In Egypt, fundamentalists are making their presence felt, and in Syria, there’s no sign that the regime will be toppled.
All of which means that Zawahiri is likely to try to take advantage of what’s going on in the region. As Daniel Byman wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, al-Qaeda could look to take any number of approaches, from exploiting power vacuums in countries facing civil war (Yemen comes to mind) to building a presence in countries that do not prioritize the fight against extremists.
Zawahiri “has always been focused on Egypt and the Levant as a key strategic centerpiece for al-Qaeda. And in the wake of the Arab Spring … I think he’s going to take on the task of figuring out how to re-inject al-Qaeda into the Middle East,” said Juan Zarate, who served as counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush and is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The key question, of course, is whether Zawahiri can get his followers to go along with the strategy he wants to set for al-Qaeda.
Said Zarate: “He’s probably going to have to contend with numerous factions and interests at the same time.”