In a move that surprised approximately zero genuine al Qaeda experts, the terrorist group has announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri has been named its new grand poobah, replacing Osama bin Laden, whose body currently rests somewhere on the floor of the Arabian Sea.
Though it was widely expected, this is still big global news; al Qaeda remains deadly even in its grossly weakened state, and it may not matter as much as we think that Zawahiri is less charismatic than his late boss. After all, al Qaeda has been marginalized and discredited for years now -- tarnished by its killing of fellow Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and delegitimized by one prominent sheikh after another. And we'll have to see whether Zawahiri's ascension will meet with the approval of the online jihadi masses.
And yet there are clearly many counterterrorism analysts, particularly those in the U.S. government, who worry that the Arab uprisings are creating an opportunity to slip through the cracks. As governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen are being toppled, the intelligence community is seeing its hard-won relationships with fellow spooks in Arab regimes melt away.
And that scares them. As one senior intelligence officer recently told Newsweek's Chris Dickey, “All this celebration of democracy is just bullshit.... You take the lid off and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think disaster is lurking.”
And yet with the fall of Arab dictators -- and the powerful demonstration effect of nonviolent protests -- al Qaeda's very rationale is now in question. Arabs have by and larged laughed at bin Laden and Zawahiri's transparent attempts to jump on the Arab Spring bandwagon, when they haven't ignored them entirely. In Egypt, erstwhile jihadists are forming political parties and running for office -- scary stuff, if they do well next fall, but probably a healthy development in the long run. Why join al Qaeda and risk your life and livelihood when there's a chance you can implement sharia via the ballot box?
The problem is that in three countries in particular -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen -- U.S. involvement is going badly, and anti-American militancy, whether it's under the al Qaeda banner or some other label, seems to hold growing appeal. For that reason, I think the question we all should be asking is whether the Obama administration's strategies in those places are really serving American interests. That's where al Qaeda's center of gravity is right now, not in Cairo or Tunis.
Another question is whether the revolts in Libya and Syria, which have become violent (to different degrees) despite their initially peaceful nature, ultimately help al Qaeda's case. In Libya, I think not: Muammar al-Qaddafi is clearly on its way out, and the broad international coalition against his regime has been broadly welcomed by Libyans, even those who might otherwise sympathize with al Qaeda's aims. In Syria, it's not the West that is propping up Bashar al-Assad and supporting his crackdown; it's China, Iran, and Russia. So I don't see how Zawahiri can capitalize on that situation.
One situation that bears watching, though, is the Palestinian territories, always a powerful motivating cause for jihadist groups. There's very little hope among Palestinians that a negotiated solution is in sight, and that's why many are turning to things like Mahmoud Abbas's U.N. recognition drive, local protests, or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. But if those peaceful initiatives don't work, what then? We might start to look wistfully at the Hamas era as the good old days.