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The future of Al Qaeda and its likely leader

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief strategist, is poised to take command of a group that has been in decline for years.

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Arab Spring undermines bin Laden's ideology

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A core part of bin Laden’s sales pitch was that only his jihad could remove Middle East autocrats from power. But in the last few years before his death, young Muslims were increasingly looking for solutions to their nations’ problems that didn’t involve restoring a medieval Islamic caliphate.

The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, which ousted two Western-backed dictators in quick succession, flatly disproved bin Laden’s worldview.

“We have clearly passed the Osama bin Laden era, and we are firmly into the Bouazizi era,” says Saudi columnist Hussein Shobokshi, referring to the young man whose self-immolation ignited the revolution in Tunisia that spread to the rest of the Arab world. “There is a grand difference between the two. One is from a very disturbed, annoying past, and one is belonging to a promising future.”

Indeed, a Pew poll conducted shortly before bin Laden’s death shows that Muslim “confidence that Osama bin Laden will do the right thing in international affairs” has plummeted in the past eight years – both in the Arab world and beyond. In the Palestinian territories, the number of supporters fell from 72 percent to 34 percent. In Pakistan, it dropped from 46 percent to 18 percent.

Al Qaeda’s “grandiose vision was completely wrong,” says Ray Takeyh, a Middle East scholar and senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations. “To the extent that regimes are being displaced, it’s being done by people power ... it has nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”

What will become of Al Qaeda now

Bin Laden’s dream of shaping societies through terrorism has failed. But that isn’t to say that attacks carried out by small cells of ideologically like-minded people will necessarily end.

Bin Laden’s relevance to recent global terrorist operations was limited, and offshoots of his group have long been operating on their own. The so-called Al Qaeda franchises in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, and elsewhere share bin Laden’s austere and chauvinistic Salafi brand of Islam, but are free agents.

The 16 people killed at a Moroccan cafe by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) last month, for example, didn’t die on bin Laden’s orders. And Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based group that claimed responsibility for sending the failed underwear bomber, is also autonomous – and more internationally engaged than the old core of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Indeed, Zawahiri has set his sights not only on the West. He has urged takfir, under which Muslims with whom one doesn’t agree are declared to be apostates, and thus fair targets for the jihad.

Other militants saw this as not only religiously unjustifiable but tactically stupid, a recipe for endless division. Maybe that’s why Al Qaeda has split.

Kristen Chick contributed from Cairo.

Ayman al-Zawahiri's background:

  • Top student; from a family of Islamic scholars
  • Formed Islamic Jihad; jailed in former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981
  • Moved to Pakistan in late ’80s and met bin Laden; formally joined forces with him in ’98
  • Wife, six children said to have been killed in a December 2001 US raid on Al Qaeda hideout

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