Since the death of its leader at the hands of U.S. special forces operators a month-and-a-half ago, the humpty-dumpty of al-Qaeda has been struggling to put itself back together again. Now, various jihadist websites are reporting that the Bin Laden network has taken a major step in that direction by officially choosing a new head.
The lucky winner isn't Saif al-Adel, the former Egyptian army officer who has become the group's top military commander. Nor is it Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American jihadi intellectual who was the ideological instigator behind the rampage of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Rather, it is Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's long-serving second-in-command.
So what does Zawahiri's ascendance tell us about the health of the organization, and its likely future direction? Herewith, a trio of early thoughts:
Al-Qaeda "prime" still matters. True, the past decade has seen the world's most notorious terrorist group metamorphose into a loose-knit union of jihadist groups. But that doesn't mean that its original leaders have become ideologically or operationally irrelevant. (Indeed, evidence recovered from the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden had made his refuge for the past half-decade indicates that the al-Qaeda chief, although on the lam, was still active in planning attacks and steering operations.) The selection of Zawahiri only confirms that, despite all of the changes of the past decade, al-Qaeda's traditional leadership remains a major player.
No power struggle at the top. The temporary elevation of al-Adel following Bin Laden's death in May was seen by some as evidence of internal friction within the group over future strategy and direction. It may well have been; al-Adel made no secret of his disagreement with Bin Laden and Zawahiri about how best to promote the organization's goals (he supported surgical strikes against Middle Eastern targets; they favored spectacular attacks on the West in the vein of 9/11). That Zawahiri was tapped as Bin Laden's successor, however, strongly suggests that whatever conflict there is between competing factions within the organization has been resolved in favor of the old guard, at least for the moment.
Continuity of vision. Terrorism experts have long believed that, although Bin Laden served as al-Qaeda's undisputed leader, it was Zawahiri – a former medical doctor and founding member of the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad – who was its intellectual heavyweight. As a result, Bin Laden's death didn't deal a fatal blow to the organization's vision. In fact, the opposite could well prove true; after years of malaise and decline, al-Qaeda under Zawahiri might experience an intellectual renaissance of sorts. What this would look like is outlined in Zawahiri's 2001 treatise, entitled "Knights under the Prophet's Banner." In it, al-Qaeda's new leader advocates a shift in the organization's strategy toward inflicting "maximum casualties" on America and its allies, largely through the use of suicide bombings and even unconventional weapons.
Whether Zawahiri will be able to implement this agenda remains to be seen. Recent months have seen a noticeable quickening in the Western offensive against al-Qaeda, and counterterrorism officials are confident that the U.S. and its allies have succeeded in at least denting the organization's capabilities. But as far as intent goes, there should be little doubt; Zawahiri, like Bin Laden before him, is completely committed to preserving and expanding al-Qaeda's war against the West, whatever the costs.