June 16th, 2011
03:00 PM ET

Analysis: Al-Zawahiri takes al Qaeda's helm when influence is waning

Ayman al-Zawahiri's coronation as the king of al Qaeda came with some anxiety over another major attack and a barrage of questions about the future of the terror network.

Since 1998, al-Zawahiri had been Osama bin Laden's personal physician and closest confidant, a steadfast deputy who eulogized his boss after his death last month in Pakistan. But it took this many weeks for an al Qaeda announcement on its new leader, and that suggested to some analysts that there had been head-bashing over who should take the helm.

"It doesn't suggest a vast reservoir of accumulated goodwill for him," said Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst.

When the founder and leader of any organization dies, it's a challenge to thrive. In al Qaeda's case, the road ahead is lined with major bumps, especially for its newly anointed leader.

Weakened in recent years, al Qaeda has been losing a critical war of ideas and now faces another hurdle in the Arab Spring, Bergen said.

"They are two big nails in the coffin," he said.

Al-Zawahiri will have to overcome al Qaeda's troubles in spite of his personal shortcomings. For starters, he lacks the charisma and oratory of his former boss.

"He wants to inspire people, not just who are joining the al Qaeda organization, but people who have never joined the al Qaeda organization and are trying to launch attacks in their name," said Paul Cruickshank, a CNN terrorism analyst. "Without bin Laden there anymore, they won't be as inspired."

There are others in the organization, like American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who might have made a better choice. Al-Awlaki speaks English, is tech-savvy and might have been one to re-energize the network with a boost of morale and fresh recruits at a time when many believe al Qaeda's influence is waning.

And Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army lieutenant and long-time Islamist, was appointed the interim leader of al Qaeda after bin Laden's death.

But Bergen said al-Adel, sort of the defense minister for al Qaeda, has never been a public face for the group. He is widely believed to be managing insurgent paramilitary operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

There are also reports describing al-Zawahiri as a prickly man who can be argumentative, divisive and difficult to work with. He has been accused of being a micro-manager who is not a true ideologue in the vein of bin Laden.

These are all qualities that do not bode well for an organization that has to re-energize itself in order to survive, analysts said.

"Very poorly respected," said former CIA Officer Phil Mudd. "He is seen as a difficult man to work with. He has no sense among the work force in al Qaeda, the kind of prestige that bin Laden had."

But as it were, al Qaeda's central command came together and talked it out until they agreed on al-Zawahiri, said Bill Roggio, military affairs analyst who is managing editor of The Long War Journal.

"He has been a very public official. He's very well known in the rank and file," Roggio said. "There's a lot of questions on how he's perceived in the ranks, but even bin Laden had his detractors."

But ultimately, Roggio said, al Qaeda closes ranks, and the group is likely to operate in a business-as-usual mode.

"Under his leadership, there really won't be that many changes," said Mark Baker, who worked for 17 years in counterterrorism at the CIA. "It's not like a corporate shakeup."

There hasn't been a successful major attack on the West since the London bombings in 2007, and experts were divided over whether al-Zawahiri will try to cement his throne with a dastardly act.

Related: Timeline: Al-Zawahiri's trail of terror

Sajjan Gohel, director of international security for the London-based counterterrorism think tank Asia-Pacific Foundation, said al-Zawahiri will have to figure out how to unite the myriad factions of al Qaeda and deal with an operational space that has been confining due to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

The organization is also suffering financially, Gohel said.

"He needs to do something to keep al Qaeda relevant in a very difficult scenario," Gohel said.

The biggest challenge may be how to gain back ideological ground in a time when pro-democracy movements are blossoming in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Al Qaeda has been opportunistic in claiming that the mass demonstrations fly in the face of Western powers, but in reality, Bergen said, the group has been rendered irrelevant in the events reverberating through the region.

"If you have freedom, al Qaeda will go away," former Egyptian jihadist Osama Rushdi said in February.

Roggio said that had bin Laden been killed shortly after the September 11 attacks, al-Zawahiri would have been taking over a less mature organization and might have had a more difficult time moving it forward.

But 10 years after those devastating attacks, al Qaeda is well-established, Roggio said. It matters less who is in charge because the middle managers - the bomb-makers, the men on the streets making the operations decisions - are entrenched in their jobs.

How important al Qaeda's top job is remains to be seen. "But it is far more established and networked today than it was," Roggio said.

Still, al-Zawhiri may not fit that easily into bin Laden's shoes.

He also takes charge after a series of recent captures and kills of al Qaeda leaders: Among them were Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the most-wanted terrorist in Africa, and Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan.

"Between the drone program, losing the war of ideas, their relevance, the bench depleted by captures or kills, the lack of success of attacks on the West - all these things don't suggest a great deal of strength for al Qaeda," Bergen said.

"That's the problem set al-Zawahiri inherits."

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  3. djse

    I am disappointed. Pasha, head of ISI, or Kayani, head of Paki army, would have been the better choice. They are contributing more the survival of al qeada than this guy.

    June 17, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  4. jh4dc5s

    Fake and Gay. Its AL-CIA-DUH.

    June 17, 2011 at 11:39 am | Reply
  5. Kanu

    Zawahiri is a CIA double-agent and he will take the terror organisation to the grave. He is the one who turned in Bin Laden and his mission is to destroy them from within and turn the rest of them in. During this CIA double-agent's reign, the terror group will deteriorate and it won't be any coincidence. Just FACTS that I'm telling.

    June 17, 2011 at 6:34 am | Reply
  6. Joseph

    Al Qaida will go whereever the US wants it to go. It is a US invention and wherever the US wishes to have control, it sends the Al Qaida idea over there to spread the fear. Then the US interferes to guarantee security – and if it refused, then it will go in to guarantee it's own security. 🙂

    June 17, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
    • James Bond

      Yes... this is by far the best analysis of Al Qaeda. It's invented to create fear in the world.

      June 17, 2011 at 9:20 am | Reply
  7. anonymous

    We should send a greeting party bearing gifts. I was thinking a small team of Navy Seals ought to be up to the task!

    June 17, 2011 at 5:37 am | Reply
  8. rosco

    @jozzz..ur scared cuz Obama "pissed off the terrorists" by killin' Bin Laden?? Terrorists feed on scurdy kats like u.. Grow some BALLS bruh..don't forget wut these fools did to OUR PEOPLE!! We'll take down any terrorist dat comes steppin!!

    June 17, 2011 at 5:02 am | Reply
  9. Matty

    They way this article is written makes al Qaeda seem like a national government rather than a terrorist organization. Way to go making them appear legitimate, CNN.

    June 17, 2011 at 4:52 am | Reply
  10. Bruce

    These losers don't matter any more. Agree with some posters, we need to concentrate on what is happening in Mexico. That is a a greater risk to the US. Additionally, we have to fix our budget.

    June 17, 2011 at 4:47 am | Reply
    • God

      Please think again.

      June 17, 2011 at 4:51 am | Reply
  11. ronh

    Noticed something odd...gas prices seem to follow CNN headlines. Most people don't care thaaat much about trivial or hearsay stuff in libya or syria but when they are a "headline" gas prices almost always go up the next day.

    June 17, 2011 at 3:55 am | Reply
  12. USA1

    He's a dead man walking. He eventually will suffer the same fate as OBL.
    Fuck him and the carpet that he flew in on.

    June 17, 2011 at 3:48 am | Reply
    • James Bond

      Go to youtube and search "9/11: Blueprint for truth"... official story suck big time!!

      June 17, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
  13. Apul M'Diq-Aoud

    Who cares? That's right who or why even care!

    They're a bunch of PO'ed ugly guys with nothing to lose & no weapons of consequence so just ignore them. Let them run around the mountains of Ethniklashistan & shoot at other tribes.

    All the US wants from that part of the world is the oil. The US should just buy it, stay out of the regions politics. When the petro dollars dry up so will the influence of these regions & bit players like al & billy qaeda (the qaeda bros) will be just pains in the arse.

    They got lucky with 9-11 in pulling it off & for short money they cost the world an incredible amount. Time to stop reacting like a bunch of old goats & just deal with the problem head on, ignore them! As if they're going to fly their magic donkies over the land & sea to drop WMD on US.

    And let's rid ourselves of these TSA & der Homeland security extremists. OK fellas, you got to pretend to be soldiers for a while, no let's get back to reality.

    June 17, 2011 at 2:27 am | Reply
  14. Islam is a terrorist religion

    Please don't wait too long to take out Zawahiri like we took out bin laden. And show the pics. Thanks. Allah Akbar.

    June 17, 2011 at 2:09 am | Reply
  15. jfjfhh

    CNN talks about Al Qaeda as if it were a fortune 500 company. Article should be titled "How do we track down and kill al qaeda's new leader".

    June 17, 2011 at 2:08 am | Reply
  16. Jeshurun

    Hi all and peace unto you. My name is Jeshurun. It has been given to me by God. The Lord has ordained me as one of two end of days witnesses (prophets). God called me in Nov 2007. The Lord led me into the mountains of Washington state; before God was done with me I found myself walking down a body of water dragging the soles of my slippers along the stones; close to the end of ths walk were two witnesses and their dogs; at the end of this walk I was instructed by the Holy Ghost to say this, "it is done". Those three words appear twice in the book of Revelation. I did not know that then. The walk lasted from sunrise until sunset. The walk is biblical. May 24 2011 the abomination of desolation was set up. On July 11 2011 blessing will be received. The beast spoken of in the book of Revelation will arise out of Iran. Folks if you have Jesus Christ in your hearts you are going to fare this just well; stand on that rock; continue in your faith. It has not been in vain or for nought. If you do not have Jesus in your life I beg of you to seek him out. He is not far from any of us. He is quick to hear and quick to heal. If you refuse to believe in God and his Christ I am sorry but you have been deceived. walk in Christ..I love you all, God loves you more..watch and pray always..our redemption is at the doors..

    Jeshurun

    June 17, 2011 at 2:06 am | Reply
    • NS

      YAWN! next..

      June 17, 2011 at 2:13 am | Reply
    • Apul M'Diq-Aoud

      Uh huh...uh huh...uh huh...yup....sure...right...uh huh uh huh.

      Yes times are pretty bad guy but they ain't so bad as for you to lose your mind & start thinking your a prophet or something special. You're just a little guy that broke mentally under the stress of trying to survive the post Bush world before the rest of US.

      Relax...there's no problem so big you can't just walk away from it.

      And if you're supposed to be taking meds & decided on your own NOT to do so...go take your meds.

      June 17, 2011 at 2:32 am | Reply
    • Faisal

      Jeshurun, you are *not* one of the two witnesses. The two witnesses will, in my understanding, come down from heaven. Yes, they will prophesy and do all things that revelation has indicated. It is a very simple concept actually. Their purpose is to be a medium between man and God, that no one can defeat. I believe they will appear eventually. Not sure when.

      June 17, 2011 at 3:42 am | Reply
    • God

      Shut up, loser!

      June 17, 2011 at 4:47 am | Reply
    • Mark

      This is the first evidence that I have seen that they do actually allow internet access to patients in mental institutions.

      June 17, 2011 at 6:20 am | Reply
  17. kerinhall

    Why, why, why would you write an article about this? What are you people at CNN thinking? Obviously you aren't!!!

    June 17, 2011 at 1:16 am | Reply
  18. Bobbym13

    where will the new boss take al qaeda ? isn't the answer quite obvious ? TO THE BOWELS OF HELL.

    June 17, 2011 at 1:11 am | Reply
  19. Sarah Conner

    It must be fun taking over the job of #1 kill target for US Special Forces.

    When are we going to bomb Pakistan? They will pay.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:58 am | Reply
  20. slimm

    Why? Why I repeat are you ppl at cnn giving this no. 2 mf the star treatment like he just won 'american idol' or something!? We got ENOUGH problems over here besides a terrorist. Let's worry about other important problems than an SOB that look like he's happy to take osama's place, who might I add aint had a sucessful attack on the US since 911 and since then had the nation on pins waiting on his azz to attack while we miss out on the important things in life.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:57 am | Reply
  21. Odell

    To keep designating the new face of terror is pointless. Killing Bin Laden didn't change a damn thing. It's strange how there's more murders happening south of the border in fashions that make Muslim extremist beheadings look like child's play, and yet I never see any American mainstream media reporting about the masses of decapitated heads found every day (some even having their heads skinned so the cartels [never referred to as terrorists] can prop them up for public display). CNN will only report on it if helps their anti-gun agenda, and FOX will only report if it helps their immigration agenda. Unfortunately the only way I can read uncensored reports is by viewing foreign news site with a rough translation-google blogdelnarco and see for yourself (STRONG graphic warning). If only Mexico were ran under Islamic law, then we'd actually hear about it.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:52 am | Reply
  22. Dale

    Gross annual production of Al Queda is lower than the smallest country in the world. They produce nothing, invent nothing, and create nothing. The are less significant to humanity than a fly on a cow's butt. Their only significance on the world stage is their willingness to commit violence, which even an insane man can do.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  23. osama bin hidin

    he will take Al Qaeda right to americas doorsteps.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  24. Richard Babajko

    These scary guys with beards and turbans did not have access to WTC towers 1, 2 and 7 in order to rig them for demolition. They didn't order a stand down of air defenses. Don't fall for this endless, phony war on terror.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:10 am | Reply
    • Dale

      Your tinfoil hat is a bit tight. I think it is cutting off the circulation to your brain.

      June 17, 2011 at 12:27 am | Reply
      • Richard Babajko

        The "tinfoil hat" line is really getting old. Look at some of the latest polls – you are in the minority.

        June 17, 2011 at 12:30 am |
      • walker

        Richy, if the majority believes the same thing as you (I doubt they do), it would just mean that a majority of the people are idiots. And that wouldnt really surprise me either. Seriously, you and the people who think this way have an ideology built on emotional need, working the facts and science to achieve a preset goal. If I look at if from your point of view, the government supplied story is simpler, fits all the facts, and is easier to keep straight. Your beliefs are overwrought, require an amount of inside people that would make keeping it secret, absolutely impossible and just plain implausible. You want us to sit and look at your ideas and keep an open mind. I have looked at each "point" that you guys say. Looking at both your explanations and the official explanations. You know what? Not a single explanation from you guys even come close to being superior to "what really happened". And what really happened was a group of disgruntled religious fanatics were able to pull off a successful attack. Not that unexpected, they had failed many times before. Persistance sometimes pays off.

        June 17, 2011 at 3:24 am |
  25. McGuffin

    Well, they will keep appointing new leaders, and we will keep killing them. There won't be any shortage any time soon. We'll keep radicalizing Muslims by assassinating people, and the existence of Muslim radicals will force us to keep defending ourselves. It is a never-ending cycle, just like in Israel and Palestine.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
    • Bill

      Should we not have killed bin Laden? The terrorists will hate us whether we defend ourselves or not. If we do, they will fear us.

      In the meantime, the better way to defeat al-Qaeda is to undermine them politically. You're correct in stating that brute force alone is not an effective long-term strategy. If Muslims are angry at the West, they will listen to the loudest angry voice directed at the West even if they may not support al-Qaeda's plans for the Muslim world. With the Arab Spring, angry Muslims now have an outlet for their frustrations. They need al-Qaeda less. Furthermore, the freedoms they are rightfully demanding contradict al-Qaeda's goal to enforcing a radical brand of Islamic theocracy.

      June 17, 2011 at 12:58 am | Reply
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