The elevation of Ayman al-Zawahri to take the leadership of al-Qaida was expected by counterterrorism analysts. He had been deputy to al-Qaida’s slain leader, Osama bin Laden. But the organization he inherits is far different than the one that first came to worldwide attention 10 years ago. And there are questions about whether he has the requisite leadership skills.
After leaving an Egyptian prison in 1984, Ayman al-Zawahri joined with Osama bin Laden and was present for the birth of al-Qaida four years later.
Brian Fishman, an expert on al-Qaida at the New America Foundation, says that longevity is al-Zawahri’s biggest asset as he takes the reins of the worlds’ most notorious terrorist organization.
"But at the end of the day every organization needs to know where it came from, and Zawahri’s one of those guys that knows for al-Qaida, and I think that is a real strength. As a leader he gets a lot of respect because he’s been there through all of the trials and tribulations that that group has undergone and has been seen as sort of bin Laden’s right-hand man through that time. So I think that that’s his biggest strength, is just duration", Fishman said.
But the organization he takes over is far different than the one he joined and that gained notoriety with its spectacular terrorist attacks in the United States of September 11, 2001.
The main difference is the proliferation of al-Qaida so-called “franchises.” These groups in North Africa and the Middle East share the al-Qaida name and nominally share the same ideology as the original parent organization. But Emile Nakhleh, former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s political Islam strategic analysis program, says they do not necessarily share the same goals of worldwide jihad against the West.
"So whether in Yemen or around Yemen, or in Somalia, or in Saudi (Arabia), or in North Africa, or in Iraq, they tend to be localized. And their agendas, while ideologically in tune with the global jihadist ideology of al-Qaida, their operations and their targets and their grievances are local," Nakhleh said.
He adds that the local franchises have also been undercut by the wave of protests in the Middle East, dubbed the “Arab spring.”
"The protests are pushing pragmatic agendas, not ideological agendas. All these movements are not beholden to radicalism, are not beholden to al-Qaida. And al-Qaida Central has really lost that luster that it used to have years back. And so in a sense al-Zawahri, regardless of his strength, is not going to be able to salvage al-Qaida," Nakhleh said.
Fishman points out that bin Laden was a charismatic firebrand whose videos were compelling to his followers, full of rhetorical and poetic flourishes.
"A communicator in al-Qaida needs to establish a number of bona fides, right? They need to say, well, I’ve been through the fire and been shot at and I’ve been on the front line kind of guy. They need to demonstrate a certain level of efficiency with the religious stuff, historical and religious knowledge. And then, like every leader, they’ve got to have a certain sort of pizzaz that gets people excited. And bin Laden was able to do that," he said.
Echoing Fishman and other analysts, Nakhleh says al-Zawahri is a pale imitation of his predecessor.
"The last speech he gave, the so-called eulogy of bin Laden, he tried to imitate bin Laden by reciting poetry. Well, when I watched that speech that he came across rather stiff, whereas bin Laden would recite poetry, Arabic poetry, and Arabic history very convincingly to his audiences," Nakhleh said.
Bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, and analysts say there was tension between the Gulf Arabs of al-Qaida - who provided much of the financing - and other jihadists. Fishman says al-Zawahri has been a divisive figure, despite his closeness to bin Laden.
"He’s sort of the guy who’s always reaching for something more and doesn’t quite have it. And that’s part of what’s been the knock on him, that he’s been somebody that always saw himself as the person that should be the leader, and that he was always sort of the climber and wasn’t as necessarily focused on the overall organization as he was with his own interests, whether they be personal or the focus on Egypt at the expense of other places," Fishman said.
But analysts add that al-Zawahri is smart enough to learn from al-Qaida’s mistakes. In 2005 he warned the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, against excessive violence, saying the pictures of decapitations in the media undermine public support for jihad. Al-Zarqawi was killed by American troops the next year. But outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta said Thursday there are still an estimated 1000 al-Qaida fighters still in Iraq.