When those Navy SEALS brought home a massive trove of intelligence from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan last month, U.S. officials were able to draw at least one conclusion with confidence: The leader of al-Qaeda was not just a figurehead.
With a comfortable base to produce his recordings and a network of couriers to release them, he was actively involved in directing the terrorist network..
Ayman al-Zawahiri now gets his turn. But what exactly is he supposed to do, and with his security perhaps more precarious than ever, how will he be able to do it?
Al-Qaeda’s central organization is formally governed by a shura, or leadership council, and experts say Zawahiri will be expected to set the group’s long-term strategy and to define priorities, not offer tactical orders. First and foremost, they say, the Egyptian-born physician will likely seek to avenge bin Laden’s death — and to do so with a major-scale attack.
“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.
For al-Qaeda, such an attack would rehabilitate the group’s image following the killing of bin Laden. But it would also help solidify loyalty to Zawahiri, who is widely seen as a divisive figure among jihadists, in part because of his uncompromising leadership style.
“He’s made some mistakes, in the sense that he’s not as charismatic [as bin Laden],” Randstorp said. “He is allegedly more ill-tempered. He’s intimately intertwined with the Egyptian struggle, which creates fissures within the organization.”
Al-Qaeda is far from the same group it was a decade ago.With growing affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, it is far more diffuse both in its reach and in its mission. Experts say the network can’t be controlled by a single leader on a day-to-day basis, and perhaps not even in a long-term sense.
“What has happened is that al-Qaeda has become more of a brand name in fomenting terrorism,” said David Livingstone, an associated fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank Chatham House.
Even so, Livingstone said, the leader of al-Qaeda remains essential to setting the “concept of operations.”
Whether Zawahiri will be able to effectively do that now is among many open questions. With U.S. officials now in possession of the intelligence haul from bin Laden’s compound, he might be leery of communicating with his followers. And the courier system might not be the best way to reach them.
“Would Zawahiri be using the same methodology when it has been shown to have failed?” Livingstone said. “He’s got to be able to communicate somehow.”