Despite gaining ground in some countries and encountering opportunities for revitalization in Syria and Egypt, al Qaeda, as a single entity, continues to fracture. For al Qaeda’s second global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, much of this has been his own doing. After the death of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, like many new bosses, tried to assert control by pushing forward via many affiliates and in many regions. Zawahiri had always been a bit more aggressive than Bin Laden who was more pragmatic and cautious in undertaking new endeavors learning from the group’s early 1990s follies in Sudan and Somalia.
@will_mccants this past week excellently captured Zawahiri’s dilemma in his Foreign Affairs article, “How Zawahiri Lost Control of al Qaeda.” As I bitterly noted yesterday in my rant on media depictions of an all powerful and cohesive al Qaeda, we now see many “al Qaeda-like” things on the global stage only some of which truly follow al Qaeda Central’s guidance. As McCants notes,
Paradoxically, one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them. The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has sought to exploit by calling on his local affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge.
Ahh, so who is boss? Many believed al Qaeda was a fluid and thriving terror group because petty personal squabbles were put aside by these extremely devout al Qaeda members who always put jihadi ideology over their own interests. As detailed in Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma and frequently seen amongst the new affiliates, personal interests routinely trump al Qaeda’s global agenda. So what is Zawahiri to do asks McCants:
Zawahiri could still pare back his organization. He could amicably part company with al Shabaab in Somalia and sever ties with AQI. The open defiance of the latter would certainly merit such a response. But al Qaeda’s leadership has historically preferred to admonish wayward affiliates rather than cut them loose. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi severely damaged al Qaeda’s global reputation by mismanaging his organization. Yet al Qaeda’s leadership preferred to privately scold him rather than cut him loose. Better to have an affiliate behaving badly, al Qaeda central figured, than to have no affiliate at all.
Zawahiri faces a different challenge than Bin Laden: a lack of levers to rein in disobedient affiliates. As seen from the Abottabad documents, affiliates of all shapes and sizes still wanted to please Bin Laden. Additionally, Bin Laden, as Gregory Johnsen notably pointed out, had what other al Qaeda leaders didn’t have: money. The respect earned from the Afghan mujahideen years, the success of the 9/11 attacks, his money and personal network, as well as steady communication all resulted in Bin Laden holding a series of levers with which to admonish wayward leaders and affiliates. Today, Zawahiri does not host these attributes nor enjoy these levers and thus has little ability to punish those out of step with his wishes. The next year will certainly be critical for seeing what shape al Qaeda takes in the future, and whether it will have much of any resemblance of the al Qaeda of old.