UBL’s death would potentially bring many outcomes including some of the fourteen choices identified in poll question 1. I found it hard to choose just one result from the fourteen choices. “Other AQ member in AF/Pak becomes new leader of AQ Central” ended up being my selection. This was a tough decision but here was my logic in relation to the other choices.
1. Zawahiri is ‘no fun’
Zawahiri might make a good “#2”, but I’m not sure other AQ members, the Taliban or the Haqqani network will let him ascend. I’m uncertain why exactly. However, I get the feeling that Zawahiri is always trying to outshine Bin Laden, lacks Bin Laden’s charisma, and finds it hard to make friends amongst other AQ members. Zawahiri is also from the North African (EIJ) strain of AQ. Despite his legacy with the group, I think AQ Central will turn to someone from the Gulf or Central/South Asia to take the reins. Zawahiri may be talented from a terrorist sense but he has a 1990’s Al Gore feel to him and thus I believe will never rise above #2. This poses another question, if Zawahiri were not to assume the top job post-Bin Laden, would this fracture AQ’s base of North African support? Would there be damaged relations between AQIM and AQ Central? Would love to hear opinions in this!
2. Haqqani protection won’t extend forever to Zawahiri
My guess is the Haqqani network will not provide protection for a Zawahiri-led AQ post-Bin Laden. While the Pashtunwali code for protecting guests has served Bin Laden well, I suspect that his death will bring the end of what has been an amazing level of Haqqani support. I also estimate that the Haqqani’s would not like to see Zawahiri emerge as the new leader of AQ Central, instead preferring someone with local interests (AF/PAK) of equal or greater priority than global jihad. Will the Haqqani’s support an AQ led by Zawahiri? Would love to hear opinions on this!
3. New AQ leader needs to be AF/PAK capable
To maintain safe haven in Pakistan, AQ Central must maintain Haqqani support, placate ISI members, retain AQ group initiative, and sustain global funding. To accomplish these four things, a current AQ member from AF/PAK other than Zawahiri will emerge to lead AQ Central. I do not believe Zawahiri will be able to do these four things post-Bin Laden. A Gulf Arab or South Asian AQ leader will have an easier time gaining local support, sustaining resource flows from donors and illicit networks, and cooperating with the ISI.
4. AQ Central shifts focus
Sustaining local support for AQ in AF/PAK will require AQ Central to focus on ‘near enemies’ as much as ‘far enemies’. Bin Laden’s death and the emergence of an AF/PAK centric AQ leader will bring renewed focus on central/south Asian insurgencies. AQ Central will not forget the need to attack the far enemy, but their base of popular support and wealth of recruits post-Bin Laden will come from countries in the larger AF/PAK region more than abroad.
So, ultimately I chose “Other AQ member in AF/PAK becomes new leader” but I could have easily picked three or four other choices. I’ll add more to this with the results of questions two and three in the coming days. In the meantime, I’d enjoy any thoughts on what I missed.