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New Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri: Do his flaws diminish group's threat?

Intelligence analysts say Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, is disliked in Al Qaeda as an irritable micromanager, but he's also a skilled military tactician and should not be discounted.

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“He’s still very ideologically rigid – I don’t want to give the impression that he’s some out-of-the-box thinker,” Fishman says, “but he’s always been most concerned about creating political effect on the ground.”

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Yet Zawahiri’s desire to create these political effects could also cause a rift with the Taliban, analysts say. The interim commander of Al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel – who, like Zawahiri, is Egyptian – was viewed as having close ties to the Afghan Taliban. Zawahiri, on the other hand, has been interested in having Al Qaeda “step to the forefront and seize political power,” Fishman says, and this could involve bypassing the Taliban.

One quality that has made Al Qaeda particularly resilient in the past, however, has been its willingness to cede political authority to the groups on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan “that have a much more organic social base,” Fishman says.

The widely heralded defeat that the US military handed Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Anbar Province came about when the terrorist group “overreached” and got too ideological, he adds. Zawahiri for his part had argued that for political reasons, Al Qaeda would have been better off not enforcing its strict ideology and making accommodations with locals in the name of political harmony.

Any savvy leader will not want to make a similar mistake in Afghanistan. “My gut says that Zawahiri wouldn’t really be stupid enough to challenge the Afghan Taliban directly in a place like Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Fishman says.

But tensions between the two US enemies remain. The Afghan Taliban has long held that it is valid to fight the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “but they didn’t approve of 9/11, and they don’t want to take steps that might cause a political reaction in the United States” that might inspire US leaders to push to extend its presence in Afghanistan longer than it already plans to, Fishman says.

The Taliban’s publicity shop, for its part, has played down any tensions, says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “If you’re going to be seen as an authentic Islamic extremist organization, you can’t break with a group like Al Qaeda,” he adds.

Other defense analysts agree. “Everybody is quick to comment on how Zawahiri’s a polarizing figure, uncharismatic, disagreeable – people can’t stand him,” Mr. Dressler says. “If all of that was going to be an obstacle, however, he never would have been approved. He’s a very skilled military tactician and planner,” he adds. Al Qaeda leaders “discussed this – and appointed him anyway.”

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