Since it was founded almost 25 years ago, al Qaeda has proved an impressive survivor, weathering, among other things, ferocious counterterrorism campaigns, the loss of its state sponsors, schisms within the broader Sunni jihadist movement, and the defection or capture of key lieutenants. Indeed, one of Osama bin Laden’s most impressive accomplishments was to create an organization that would survive almost anything, even his passing. Although bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals surprised most Americans, al Qaeda had long been prepared for it.
Still, bin Laden’s demise could not have come at a worse time for al Qaeda. As I wrote in my recent Foreign Affairs article (“Terrorism After the Revolutions” May/June 2011), the Arab Spring posed a direct challenge to al Qaeda’s narrative because it offered a compelling alternative to bin Laden’s message that jihad against the United States and its allies was the key to change in the Arab world. This spring, Arabs, particularly Arab youth, proved that peaceful protest could defeat the region’s autocratic regimes without any of the violence that had tarnished al Qaeda.
Now, not only is bin Laden’s message under assault, the messenger is gone as well -- and al Qaeda appears on the run. And as both his admirers and his enemies readily concede, bin Laden was an impressive leader. He inspired thousands to take up arms and his charisma was well known. His death will surely leave a void within the organization.
Al Qaeda will probably try to regroup under a new leader, but Ayman al-Zawahiri, the presumed next-in-line, lacks bin Laden’s star power. Although intelligent and ruthless, Zawahiri is more apparatchik than visionary, and he has a divisive history within al Qaeda. His years fighting jihad give him street credibility (who else founded his own terrorist group as a teenager?), but no one describes him as charismatic, and he has at times fostered divisions within the jihadist movement. Neither potential