Huthaifa Azzam was a young man living in Osama bin Laden’s house in the 1980s when he met a cantankerous Egyptian with a gift for rubbing people the wrong way. Ayman al-Zawahiri was then well on his way to terrorist superstardom, but he struck Azzam as mostly a jerk.
“He was arrogant, angry and extreme in his ideas,” said Azzam, 40, son of a radical Palestinian ideologue who had become bin Laden’s mentor. “He fought with everyone, even those who agreed with him.”
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.”
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.
As the new leader of al-Qaeda, Zawahiri will face intense pressure to launch a major strike to avenge bin Laden’s death. But Huthaifa Azzam, citing personal recollections and contacts with al-Qaeda associations, said he doubted that Zawahiri could command a network of operatives required for a complex operation.
“The truth is, he doesn’t have the power to strike back,” Azzam said. “Sept. 11 was carried out by highly motivated people in many different places. Zawahiri can’t pull together something like that.”
U.S. officials said they have seen no indication that such large-scale plot is in the works or that al-Qaeda remains capable of such an attack.
“It’s not like they were only half-heartedly trying to attack us until bin Laden was killed,” a second U.S. counterterrorism official said. “This is an organization with one main mission: to attack the United States. The harder they try, the more risks they’re going to have to take.”
U.S. intelligence officials said that Zawahiri is presumed to be hiding in Pakistan. The trove of materials found at the compound where bin Laden was killed has not provided significant new clues to Zawahiri’s location. But officials said the completion of the decade-long bin Laden manhunt has freed up intelligence resources to pursue other targets, including Zawahiri.
Al-Qaeda has become a different organization than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. With growing affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, it is more diffuse 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 associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Whether Zawahiri can effectively build up his own brand is one of many open questions. With U.S. officials now in possession of the intelligence haul from bin Laden’s compound, Zawahiri 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.”
Sheridan reported from Cairo. Staff writers Peter Finn, Greg Miller and Jason Ukman and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.