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.

Site Intelligence Group/HO/AFP
This video grab provided by the Site Intelligence Group on April 15, shows a picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mr. Zawahiri is the successor to Osama bin Laden.

An irritable micromanager disliked by even the organization’s most loyal foot soldiers – it’s not the sort of description you’d expect to hear of the mastermind of a global terrorist network.

But that is precisely the description that intelligence analysts tend to give of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new head of Al Qaeda.

Not only is he widely believed to be a less-than-effective manager, US officials say, Mr. Zawahiri does not have the sort of “peculiar charisma” that Osama bin Laden did, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters last week.

And that’s not all: Mr. bin Laden “was much more operationally engaged than we have the sense Zawahiri has been,” Mr. Gates noted.

Such comments seem to give the impression that US defense officials were privately high-fiving each other after hearing of Zawahiri’s ascension last week to Al Qaeda’s helm.

So, just how much does the Pentagon have to worry about the former Egyptian physician, now the de facto No. 1 archnemesis of the US military? Pentagon officials have made it clear they still take the threat of Zawahiri seriously.

“I think we should be mindful that this announcement by Al Qaeda reminds us that despite having suffered a huge loss with the killing of bin Laden and a number of others,” Gates said, “Al Qaeda seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed, and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them.”

The Pentagon has also emphasized that the new leader of Al Qaeda, believed (for what it’s worth, considering where bin Laden was found) to be hiding in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, should expect to be the target of a robust and ongoing manhunt.

“I’m not sure it’s a position anybody should aspire to, under the circumstances,” Gates said.

The conventional wisdom, however, is that it’s a position that the ambitious Zawahiri has long coveted.

“He has been sort of a climber, not only within Al Qaeda but in the larger jihadist movement,” says Brian Fishman, terrorism research fellow at the New American Foundation. “He’s attached himself to a rising star within the organization – bin Laden – and that’s how he’s seen, as somebody who isn’t always piously committed, but brings with him a sense of personal aggrandizement.”

That kind of mercenary approach, however, can have practical advantages, Mr. Fishman says. In the internal debate about whether Al Qaeda should maintain a strict ideological litmus test for members, or “get as many people into the tent as possible,” Zawahiri is a member of the latter camp, Fishman says, which could translate into more Al Qaeda followers.

“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.”

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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