The Zawahiri Era
ON MAY 2, 2011, al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden left this world for the next, and the American bipartisan political elite—not to mention the U.S.-Euro war-loving quintet made up of Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy—leapt off the precipice of simple unreality into the rarefied environs of true fantasy. They are behaving as if bin Laden’s death has ushered in an era in which the United States and the West will at long last get their way in the Muslim world through diktat backed by military force, which, of course, amounts to making our little Muslim brothers just like us . . . Au contraire.
Since 2001, ten thousand U.S. citizens have died, more than thirty thousand have been wounded or maimed, two U.S. field armies are quitting wars without winning, and the public purse will incur costs estimated at up to $4 trillion when all is said and done. Each component of this laundry list of failures is in one way or another attributable to bin Laden. No individual, moreover, has had a greater negative impact on Americans in the last fifty years. From the way U.S. citizens look at their government (can it protect us?), immigrants (what are they really up to in that garage?) or the police (how secure are our civil liberties?), the assumptions of everyday life have been changed for the worse by bin Laden’s words and deeds. At the least Americans will be able to welcome the absence of a man who for fifteen years bombed their cities, ships and embassies; killed their soldier-children; helped ruin their economy; and consistently made asses out of their presidents and generals. But while killing bin Laden is a significant achievement for the military and the CIA (and for the U.S. public), those levelheaded folks will take it for what it is, a major tactical victory that will only lead to a strategic defeat of the enemy should extreme—and highly unlikely—good fortune prevail.
Being a highly talented combination of seventh-century believer and twenty-first-century CEO, bin Laden built, in al-Qaeda, an absolutely unique Muslim organization: multiethnic, multilingual, organizationally sound and resilient, religiously tolerant and militarily effective. We will see in the next few years if bin Laden was the indispensable glue that kept al-Qaeda together or if his skill, his leadership and its nearly twenty-five years of being institutionalized as an organization created a survivable entity. The question on everyone’s lips is whether new al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri is up to the job. My own bet is that al-Qaeda will survive, as it did after near economic ruin in Sudan (1994–96); after the pounding it took from the U.S.-NATO-Pakistan coalition (2001–02); and after the U.S. military helpfully killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq (2006), whose indiscriminate targeting of Muslims almost pushed al-Qaeda to the brink of defeat.
EVEN BEFORE 9/11, bin Laden made it clear to those taking time to read what he said—not many, sadly, in the last three U.S. administrations—that he knew the war he had declared on the United States in 1996 would last for decades and perhaps generations, and that he, naturally enough, would not live to see it through to the end. Indeed, he often said he wished to die fighting America; the U.S. Navy SEALs should expect a thank-you note from the great beyond. Wanting as protracted a war as possible—it was the only one Islamists could win, and the one Americans would surely lose—bin Laden set himself the goal of building an organization that could survive both a war against the U.S. superpower backed by its NATO vassals and his own capture or death. Concern about al-Qaeda’s survivability is such a strong and often-repeated theme in bin Laden’s oeuvre that the White House’s breathless post–May 2 “leaks” of data from his residence showing he worried about the group’s staying power say far less about bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s condition than they do about the failure of U.S. civilian and military officials to read and ponder their enemies’ words.
For all the Obama-administration rhetoric to the contrary, bin Laden’s creation of a survivable entity was an unqualified success. To protect his organization against decapitation—something he knew America’s legalistic “catch ’em, try ’em, hang ’em” ethos would focus on—bin Laden began dispersing al-Qaeda soon after 9/11. The first step was to send fighters home who were not needed in the early stages of war with the U.S.-NATO coalition; after all, the fewer fighters forced to run and hide in the Afghan mountains or Pakistan the better. The second step, so foolishly catalyzed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, was bin Laden and his senior lieutenants building and strengthening organizational offshoots in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Levant, Palestine and North Africa. As he drew his last breath, in fact, bin Laden knew al-Qaeda’s horizontal growth since 2001 had given it seven locations from which to plan, train for and launch operations—as opposed to one at 9/11—none of which, save Pakistan, has been more than marginally damaged by U.S. or Western military forces over the last decade. He also knew that al-Qaeda’s multiyear investment in inciting young Muslims worldwide, from Nigeria to New Delhi to the North Caucasus, had been a substantial success. More specifically, al-Qaeda’s recruitment of talented, young U.S.-citizen Muslims—men such as the editor of the group’s online magazine Inspire, Samir Khan, senior operative and media adviser Azzam al-Amriki and public-preacher-cum-recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki—gave the organization’s media arm a powerfully influential means with which to promote war in the streets of the English-speaking world, especially in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and India.
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI, then, inherits an al-Qaeda organization that is larger, younger, better educated, much more geographically dispersed and has many more adherents than the one he joined in 1998. But as a figurehead, in several ways, he clearly lacks bin Laden’s exceptional (unique?) list of pertinent credentials. Though al-Zawahiri aided the Afghans as a physician during the anti-Soviet jihad, he acquired neither the combat experience nor the wounds from which bin Laden’s stature benefited. And he does not speak the same eloquent—even poetic—Arabic that Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis and others have appropriately ascribed to his predecessor. Moreover, while al-Zawahiri hails from a prestigious and fairly well-off Egyptian family, he does not have the durable Midas touch that bin Laden derived from his relatives’ enormous fortune and from the wealthy royal and nonroyal Gulf families he associated with and drew upon for funding. Finally, al-Zawahiri lacks the charisma for young Muslim males that bin Laden gained through his personal Robin Hood–like history, his eloquence, and his impeccable record of matching words and deeds. If bin Laden was the daring, visionary and inspirational older brother, al-Zawahiri is more the sober, methodical and prudent uncle.
The issue, then, comes down to leadership. The chattering classes run strongly to the opinion that al-Zawahiri will fail and preside over al-Qaeda’s decline-to-destruction because he is too abrasive, too dictatorial, too Egypt-centric, too vicious and bloodthirsty, too focused on the Arab world and too pedestrian to fill bin Laden’s shoes. There is a good deal of truth in this analysis, but most of the evidence supporting it was acquired before he joined al-Qaeda in 1998. A careful reading of al-Zawahiri’s enormous literary output since then—again, not a common activity in the West—shows bin Laden’s impact on him was profound. From being an Egypt-centric fighter, he became an anti-U.S. firebrand; from being obsessively clandestine, he became an ace media manipulator and propagandist; and from being a cold-blooded and fairly indiscriminate killer, he became more circumspect and careful, going so far as to reprimand Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in July 2005 for being as bloody-minded and inconsiderate of Muslim public opinion as he (al-Zawahiri) was before joining al-Qaeda. And his prudence is not necessarily weakness, especially when found in a person who is also pious, talented, personally brave, and—like bin Laden—not only ruthless but blessed with an uncanny knack for surviving against very long odds.
It would be reckless to assume al-Zawahiri has learned little and changed nothing since the mid-1990s. He does succeed bin Laden with potentially debilitating personality traits and leadership quirks, but he would have to ignore the advice and experience of his lieutenants as well as the guidance of al-Qaeda’s top decision-making body, the Shura Council, and then deploy and intensify his negative traits and idiosyncrasies with an eye toward deliberately destroying al-Qaeda and throwing away his own life’s work to undermine the promising opportunities he inherited from bin Laden. It may well be that al-Zawahiri will never be bin Laden, but there is also zero evidence that he is a reckless, supremely egotistical fool bent on self- and organizational immolation. “Any leadership flaw,” al-Zawahiri has written, “could lead to an historic catastrophe for the entire ummah,” and he has three able, organization-bred and combat-experienced lieutenants—Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Abu Yahya al-Libi and Abu Basir Naser al-Wayhashi—who will keep him focused. (Al-Zawahiri’s deputy is likely to be one of the three, probably Atiyah, who was bin Laden’s operations chief.)
Having inherited a sound and expanding organization and the very media-marketable memory of bin Laden’s ministrations and exploits, prudently managed, al-Zawahiri’s assets are more than sufficient to keep al-Qaeda in a position to help feckless U.S. politicians promote America’s financial ruin for decades to come. And worse.
AL-ZAWAHIRI IS at least as committed as bin Laden was to acquiring a nuclear device to use in the United States; assisting the Afghan Taliban to reestablish its Islamic Emirate; continuing to recoup al-Qaeda’s fortunes in Iraq in order to keep inserting fighters into the Levant states and to prepare for Iraq’s inevitable Shia-Sunni civil war; and using al-Qaeda and other mujahideen media to incite the coming generation of Muslims—especially in the English-speaking world—to join the jihad. Like his predecessor, al-Zawahiri believes martyrdom missions inflict the most damage on the enemy at the least cost to the insurgents.
Al-Qaeda sans bin Laden will change, but merely because long-planned strategies are reaching maturity. Under an al-Zawahiri-led al-Qaeda, the portfolio of attack types will expand, meaning a program of less deadly but more frequent bombings in the West. Though bin Laden long preferred large-scale terrorism in the United States and wanted the attack that followed 9/11 to be even bigger than those on “the blessed Tuesday” (and there is no reason to doubt planning for a large follow-up continues; indeed, material from bin Laden’s Abbottabad house shows such intent), the data found depicts bin Laden’s interest in infrastructure targets, surface transportation and prominent individuals. Iraq is the laboratory for this change in plan.
Already under way in that Mesopotamian theater is al-Qaeda’s slow but steady campaign to recover from al-Zarqawi’s wild festival of indiscriminate, bisectarian murder. It was, of course, the negative impact of al-Zarqawi’s savagery against Sunni Iraqis that allowed the U.S. surge to temporarily succeed: no al-Zarqawi slaughter, no alienated Sunnis, and so no basis for the “Awakening.” (Without an al-Zarqawi-like figure in Afghanistan for U.S.-NATO forces to exploit, a similar effort was impossible.) But al-Qaeda was not eliminated by the surge—it merely dispersed to areas in Iraq and the Levant to refit and begin a comeback.
The resurgence now approaches. Forced by the al-Zarqawi-led brutality to clarify appropriate target sets, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri proffered their mea culpas, reenfranchised Iraqis and delegitimized the Western narrative. The two men praised al-Zarqawi for killing U.S. and coalition soldiers while also explicitly noting that the indiscriminate killing of Sunni and Shia Iraqis was wrong in Islamic terms, was not al-Qaeda policy and would not recur. Bin Laden in particular managed to simultaneously substantively reject the West’s Islam-forbids-the-killing-of-one-Muslim-by-another-in-all-cases-whatsoever spin on al-Zarqawi’s behavior. (Interestingly, the Obama administration, its European allies, and much of the U.S. media and academy still peddle this nonsense, most recently pointing out bin Laden’s continued concern about the issue right before he died. Well, no kidding; trying to undo what al-Zarqawi did had been at the top of bin Laden’s agenda since 2006.) Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri correctly pointed out that there are Muslims on all continents and in all countries; the West’s incorrect, absolutist interpretation of Islamic law on this issue would allow it to use domestic Muslims as human shields and negate the ability of the Islamic world to respond to Western attacks. To reduce the West’s contention to its rightful status as a patent absurdity, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri might have asked if the Christian God’s thou-shalt-not-kill commandment is an absolute in all cases whatsoever.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri went further still. If al-Qaeda, its allies and those it inspires were going to wage their jihad effectively, they would have to kill Muslims. Thus, the remaining job was to define those Muslims who were religiously permissible targets. The two men did this job splendidly. In the Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islamic law, Muslims who actively support an apostate regime or an infidel occupier sacrifice the protection afforded by their faith; their lives and wealth can be taken. Soldiers, bureaucrats, security and intelligence officers, and elected or appointed government officials serving apostate regimes or foreign occupiers are therefore legitimate targets. It is individuals in these categories who have been al-Qaeda in Iraq’s primary victims as it tries to recoup al-Zarqawi-caused losses, and there has been little to no negative reaction from Iraq’s Sunni community or other Islamic regimes and scholars outside Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s focus on these categories of Muslims as legitimate targets is likely to harden into an organization-wide policy and will be supported by rapid and cogent rejections from senior leaders of further Western contentions that one Muslim cannot kill another. This leaves a reinvigorated al-Qaeda with an expanded and well-defined target set.
Armored in emboldened doctrine and rejuvenated recruits, al-Qaeda has now moved on to the training and implementation stage of its next attack pattern. As al-Qaeda in Iraq works to reclaim lost ground and allies, it is using attacks that fit the definition of targetable Muslims and cover the gamut of smaller operations. Oil pipelines, storage tanks and electrical-distribution assets have been sabotaged; military, security and police bases, stations and recruiting offices have all been hit by bombings and/or small-group assaults, as have national and provincial government ministries; and assassinations of government officials, bureaucrats, senior security officers and Sunni tribal chiefs working with the Baghdad regime have become part of daily life. (It is worth noting that Fort Hood and at least four U.S. military recruiting posts have been attacked by domestic Islamists in the last few years.) Iraq today has allowed al-Qaeda to practice, refine and teach (via the Internet) its host of revised tactics. Given the multinational makeup of al-Qaeda’s force in Iraq, there is no reason to doubt that those who graduate from this school will be sent abroad to ply their lethal trade.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has a chance to advance al-Qaeda’s work to an extent that bin Laden may have just begun to see in his last months. Having an opportunity and exploiting it are two different things, however, and al-Zawahiri’s personality, earlier operational record, multiple detractors as well as the absence of bin Laden’s steadying hand certainly leave open the possibility that he will fly the next plane into a mountain rather than, say, the rebuilt Pentagon. But we must not count on al-Zawahiri being anything other than what he has appeared to be since 1998: a rational, prudent, brave, dedicated and media-savvy leader.
BEYOND LEADERSHIP crises, changing tactics and mounting operations is one steadfast reality: al-Qaeda’s indispensable, long-term and utterly reliable ally—Washington’s interventionist foreign policy—remains the group’s true center of gravity. It is a galvanizing force which cannot be harmed, let alone destroyed, until U.S. leaders in politics, the media, religion (especially evangelical Protestants), the military and the academy begin to accept the truth; that is, the United States government is hated by most Muslims for what it does in the Islamic world, and not for how Americans think and behave at home. Needless to say, an enemy with such an unassailable core is pretty formidable, if not impregnable.
As al-Zawahiri takes charge, the U.S. government continues to: arm and defend the Saudi police state; depend on oil and debt purchases from Riyadh and other oil-rich Gulf tyrannies; keep military forces in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; fund and defend Israel; fund and direct a new U.S.-NATO war on Libya; and assist the UN, EU and George Clooney in tearing out the oil-rich southern region of Muslim Sudan and giving it to a new Christian state. In other words, the powerful religious motivation for al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups to fight the United States and the West remains exactly what it was when bin Laden declared war in 1996—Israel, oil, intervention, occupation and support for tyranny.
And one other key thing remains the same. President Obama continues to glibly lie to U.S. citizens, claiming—as did Presidents Bush and Clinton—that al-Qaeda, its allies and those they inspire are attacking us because they hate freedom, liberty, democracy, gender equality, elections and virtually every other thing Americans hold dear. The script of these presidents deftly scares U.S. citizens and ably prevents substantive foreign-policy debate. It is useless, however, for educating Americans about the deadly and growing enemy they face, one that hates their government, not them. There is no better recruiting strategy for the mujahideen in all parts of the globe than to pray for the maintenance of the status quo in U.S. and Western foreign policy in the Muslim world. With Obama et al at the helm, they have little to worry about.
In fact, the administration continues to hand over a gift-wrapped advantage to al-Qaeda and the mujahideen, for U.S. military defeat is an inevitability. The West tends to forget that the Afghan insurgents’ 1989 rout of the Soviet army in Afghanistan was the key motivator for Osama bin Laden’s generation to join the jihad. The Red Army’s loss alone was not enough to destroy what was and is a deeply ingrained sense of defeatism in the Muslim world, but it did foster the belief that infidel powers are not destined to win each and every time they fight Muslims. For over a decade, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri led a charge to wipe out defeatism; they saw it as the biggest threat to Islam’s survival. Indeed, one reason bin Laden strove so mightily—and finally successfully—to lure the United States into Afghanistan was his belief that U.S. forces would be easier to beat than the Russians (objectively true) and that by defeating the mighty Western superpower, the back of Muslim defeatism would be broken (we will see).
Now, President Obama has allowed the testing of bin Laden’s theory by surrendering in Afghanistan and Iraq without accomplishing any of the original objectives Washington set. And today, moreover, Obama and his fellow interventionists in both parties and NATO have been unable to win a four-month-and-counting war against Libyan forces, which in the past were manhandled by Chad’s mighty military legions. If bin Laden turns out to be right in his contention that multiple defeats of the United States at the hands of inferior Islamist forces armed with Korean War–era weapons would end Muslim defeatism, al-Zawahiri will in two years be standing in sweet, high clover too tall for even his purported personal failings to cock up.
Then there is the Hillary Clinton–devised cultural war on Islam, now championed by Obama and Cameron as the proper response to the so-called Arab Spring. After the fall of the tyrannical Arab regimes in Tunis and Cairo, and the now ongoing slipping-away of those in Yemen, Libya and Syria, Secretary of State Clinton decided the time had come not only to out-Bush George but to by far out-Wilson the lamentable, bloody-handed Woodrow. Not only would she and her State Department bring freedom and democracy to the Arabs, but she would through decree—and with force if necessary—install Western-style women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state (which in Democratic doctrine means driving religion from both governance and the public square). In other words, Professor Huntington’s clash of civilizations is ready to be started and then driven not by caliphate-obsessed Islamist fanatics—as promised by the (usually) neocon reactionaries Walid Phares, Bernard Lewis, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review—but by naive, well-meaning, ahistorical, antireligious, arrogant and largely Ivy League–trained ne’er-do-wells like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, and the editors and reporters of the New York Times and Washington Post.
By declaring this cultural war on Islam, Barack Obama effectively applied a tourniquet to the wound inflicted on al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement by the SEALs’ killing of bin Laden. In the midst of uncertainties about the impact of that death, Obama told young Muslims worldwide that he was George W. Bush vis-à-vis U.S. policy in the Islamic world, even paraphrasing his predecessor’s zany ideas with such words as “we know that our own future [America’s] is bound to this region [the Arab world] by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.” The young-Muslim translation: U.S. and Western military, economic and political interventionism is here to stay, words that merely back up the signal sent by the U.S.-NATO war of whim on Libya, continuing drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, and Mrs. Clinton’s thinly veiled military threats against Syria.
But they also heard much more. They heard Obama pledge the U.S. government to the task of making Muslims into good, secular Westerners. In the speech, Obama left no room to doubt that he foolishly believes democracy is on the march in the Arab world and that he will use U.S. power to intervene and transform Islamic culture. This latest war on Islam was a gift to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies, second in magnitude only to Bush’s jihad-justifying invasion and occupation of Iraq.
A EULOGY for bin Laden published by Abu Basir Naser al-Wayhashi, formerly bin Laden’s secretary and now commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, suggests far worse is due for America. It not only expresses determination to carry the war forward but also offers a concise summary of the motivating power al-Zawahiri, his lieutenants and other Islamist leaders can draw on from the example of the life bin Laden led and the manner in which he matched words and deeds.
May Allah reward you on behalf of Islam O’ pious mujahid, you served the religion the best of service and you didn’t delay a second, and never apologized, and not one time backed off. Brave and bold, pious and devout, strong, motivated, courageous, spoken with honesty . . . and every time you talked you also did, and we knew about you that you did not submit to the accuses of the accusers, and you didn’t fear anyone but Allah, and everywhere you stepped you disturbed the kuffar [infidels] and every time you offered your hand it was to fight or for [a] good deed, and you revived in the ummah the plant of jihad and Jama’a [Islamic groups] and Hijra [emigration from one place to another to better fight Islam’s foes], and you brought up the pillar of loyalty and enmity, and you divided people into two parties, faith and Kufr.
But wars are never won by dead martyrs, rather by living and intelligent fighters who demonstrate courage, piety, prudence, patience, a reliable eye for the main chance, and—if God smiles on the warriors—an enemy who plays the part of a willing and effective foil, at times even that of a patsy. Al-Zawahiri takes charge in difficult and dangerous circumstances, but he faces a situation more promising than any al-Qaeda has encountered since its founding. All Americans should pray al-Zawahiri squanders his opportunity, as that may be the only way to avoid the military defeat and economic ruin the U.S. political elite seem eager to impose on their countrymen by refusing to face and combat the true sources of the Islamists’ motivation.