By Scott Erickson
The announcement that Osama bin Laden’s longtime second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, will lead the fractured terrorist group came as no surprise to pundits and observers.
Since joining forces with bin Laden in 1998, al Zawahiri had jointly pursued a series of dramatic assaults on the United States and Western interests abroad, including the tragic attacks of 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in 2000. While the ascendance of al Zawahiri to lead al Qaeda Central is largely anticlimactic, his appointment nonetheless does little to alter the current trajectory of al Qaeda Central’s waning influence on the global stage of pan Islamist movements.
Born into an affluent Egyptian family, al Zawahiri has long been at the forefront of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East, notably within his homeland of Egypt. A member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, al Zawahiri spent three years in an Egyptian prison following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al Sadat in 1981. Following his release from prison, al Zawahiri continued to foment jihad while participating in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was there that he met Osama bin Laden, beginning a collaborative relationship that would continue until bin Laden’s death last month.
Known for his tepid personality, few expect al Zawahiri to inspire followers in the same manner which brought iconic status to Osama bin Laden within the depths of militant Islamism. This reality underscores the unlikelihood that al Zawahiri will be able to enhance the once commanding relevance of al Qaeda Central.
Since the attacks of 9/11, the landscape of the global jihadist movement has altered considerably. Where once al Qaeda Central had enjoyed a monopoly on the grandiose schemes of terrorism, the U.S. led fight to cripple terrorist safe havens in the Middle East has caused the al Qaeda led campaign to fracture into more disparate constituencies.
Regional al Qaeda movements in the Islamic Maghreb, along the Arabian peninsula, and throughout the Horn of Africa, often only tangentially associated to al Qaeda Central, comprise the larger Islamist threat now facing the United States and her broader interests.
Once considerably stronger in numbers, al Qaeda Central’s following has recently been pegged at no more than a few hundred in the region around Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ability of al Qaeda Central’s command and control to organize and execute a sophisticated attack against the United States remains weakened.
Without question, the larger threat no doubt still exists, and the United States must remain vigilant; however, the assumption of Ayman al Zawahiri as leader of al Qaeda Central is unlikely to alter its current trajectory of waning influence and diminishing capacity.
Instead, much like Osama bin Laden, he too will likely remain an elusive figure, hidden far from the public eye, attempting to resuscitate a dying movement largely repudiated by those who have witnessed its destructive and feeble attempts at subjugating man.