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 funders nor recruits are as ready to flock to him as they were to bin Laden.
The aggressive U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda leaders will make it even harder for Zawahiri to consolidate control and lead the organization through the aftermath of the Arab Spring. To cement his position, he would have to give speeches, meet with lieutenants, and build trust within an organization that always depended heavily on personal relationships. Of course, all of these activities, particularly if done on a large scale, would risk exposing Zawahiri to U.S. intelligence. It would be devastating for al Qaeda if he were captured or killed soon after bin Laden’s death. None of the remaining lieutenants are obvious candidates to take over.
Zawahiri may pursue a more cautious approach, but that would entail exercising less control over operations and affiliate groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This would allow senior leaders in al Qaeda’s affiliates to exercise more autonomy, weakening organization’s unity of effort.
In the coming months, al Qaeda will have to be nimble. In my essay, I wrote about the opportunities that the Arab Spring opened up for al Qaeda, even while damaging its message. For example, the organization could exploit civil wars, build a presence in countries in which new regimes do not prioritize expelling jihadis, and take advantage of new governments’ likely reluctance to work with the United States. However, seizing such opportunities will prove more difficult if the organization is focused internally rather than externally.
Meanwhile, new groups that are better able to take advantage of the Arab Spring may emerge. And existing organizations will adapt to changing political realities, such as the possible presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in government -- a development that would entail both opportunities and risks. Whether al Qaeda has the appeal and money to guide locals as they navigate new political systems is an open question. Eventually, other terrorist groups may eat into al Qaeda’s market share or eclipse it entirely.