Osama bin Laden was always going to be a tough act to follow. The deceased Al Qaeda leader's speeches were once listened to raptly by his followers and jihadi-wannabes around the world, and frequently preceded the mass casualty attacks against civilians that drove his rise to prominence.
But where Bin Laden had a certain charisma, his successor Ayman Zawahiri is generally cold and charmless. And the organization that he inherited is a shadow of its former self. Now Mr. Zawahiri has emerged with at least his eighth speech since taking charge of Al Qaeda's operations in Pakistan this may, and his message is in many ways a measure of how reduced the terror organization's scope for action has become.
Zawahiri rose to the top of the group after Bin Laden's death at the hands of US Navy Seals in Abbottabad this past May. He's clearly eager to show skeptical potential followers that Al Qaeda is still relevant. His big news in the latest missive? Al Qaeda is taking credit for the kidnapping of Warren Weinstein, a US aid worker. Mr. Weinstein, a veteran of USAID now working on a US government aid contract in Pakistan, was dragged out of his Lahore home in August by a group of gunmen.
This is obviously a horrifying situation for Mr. Weinstein and his family. And the ongoing ability of Al Qaeda to operate within Pakistan is clearly a big problem. Related groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa) retain potency in their areas.
But Al Qaeda central, harried as it is in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in its Pakistani base, has not carried out a spectacular attack on Western interests in a very long time. Recent Al Qaeda-inspired efforts, like the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, have been amateurish failures.
It's going to be very hard to sell the kidnapping of a 70-year-old unarmed man to the jihadi base as striking a glorious blow in a grand, religious cause – and as evidence that Al Qaeda is back in business. But Zawahiri gave it his best shot anyway. "We have been successful, thanks to God almighty, in capturing an American Jew called Warren Weinstein," he said.
Al Qaeda's support in the Muslim world has been in decline for over a decade, largely due to its frequent murder of civilians, Muslim, Christian and Jewish alike. While Zawahiri would like to paint the organization as a potent adversary of the United States, most of its victims are the weak and the unarmed. "Join our cause and you, too, can kidnap unarmed men from their homes" is not a slogan likely to resonate very far.
Al Qaeda's longstanding rhetoric that the despots of the Middle East could only be defeated by its brand of jihad, has also been dealt a blow by the Arab uprisings this year – with the dictators of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia swept from power.
Zawahiri demanded the release of all Al Qaeda-linked men from US jails, an end to US military operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Somalia, and said Weinstein's life is President Barack Obama's hands. He of course will get none of those things.
This means Weinstein is in a perilous, alarming situation. But these kinds of tactics are also the reason why Al Qaeda is becoming increasingly irrelevant.