We can safely say 2011 has not been good for Al-Qaeda. First, the organisation witnessed people power movements throughout the Middle East, which have damaged the organisation’s credibility and relevancy on a number of levels.
For instance, these pro-democracy uprisings clearly showed that Muslims prefer to live in freedom rather than in a harshly repressive politico-religious straightjacket. Moreover, Egypt and Tunisia debunked the Al-Qaeda-propagated myth that political change can only occur through violence.
Additionally, the uprisings are the biggest series of events in the region in decades, yet Al-Qaeda was only an observer. It contributed nothing to the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Even worse, the leaders of Al-Qaeda did not foresee the uprisings, nor were they prepared to address them. The best Al-Qaeda could offer has been a few dated, rambling and incoherent statements that appeared to be composed before the fall of Mubarak.
And now, with the fall of Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has suffered another major blow. Bin Laden is irreplaceable. He had the skill and charisma to recruit people into the organisation and inspire his followers into committing violence and destruction. Plus, under Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda popularized suicide terrorism, which is the ultimate form of loyalty and sacrifice to the organisation and to Osama himself.
The interim leader of AQ has been appointed, Saif al Adel, an Egyptian though the Iraq AQ has already publicly declared or al Zawahiri, also an Egyptian. As Bergen notes abou al Adel, Baya, or an oath of loyalty was to Bin Laden himself, not to the cause and one of the key issues will be who, if anyone, can inspire the same loyalty. The Saudi and Egyptian contingents have been at odds over the leadership of Al Qaeda from the beginning and these two groups have been even further at odds with the local organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The problem that AQ has always has is the problem that Nelson notes, it was never able to actually follow Mao's premise on turning a revolutionary guerrilla force into a governing force. The second step is to move from being "bandits" to being an army with central control, central ideology and central planning. AQ has remained a loose, decentralized network whose commanders all do their own planning and execution, well outside of any central plan for obtaining and maintaining power. They remain "bandits".
The issue now is also as Nelson notes, without that ability to expand from the militant into the political and social program, Al Qaeda will eventually fade away and collapse. However, it cannot be counted out. Like anything that is going through painful throws of death and irrelevance, AQ is likely to adjust and lash out in some very creative and devastating ways.
Whether it is al Adel or Zawahiri as the final leadership for the organization, it is clear that the Egyptian contingent that has held nine of the twelve Shura seats for nearly two decades has finally rested complete control of the organization from any other group. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to pull together either the Yemen branch of AQAP and the AQ al Maghreb (Libya, Tunisia, etc) to act on a central plan.
The likelihood will be that AQ is likely to start seeing a reverse flow of fighters out of Pakistan and back to these regions. Wherever there is a serious power vacuum, AQ has the ability to set up safe houses and training facilities. Most of these will likely be either aiming at Saudi Arabia or Egypt, possibly both. Neither al Adel nor Zawahiri have been shy at either stating their central goal of an Islamic war for Egypt or making plans for the same (more widely, the Levant). It has been one of the reasons that hardline Salafis groups in Gaza and Lebanon Palestinian camps have risen.
While Egypt may yet to be open enough for direct camps, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan provide ample training grounds. All Egypt must do is provide an open space for the movement of men, arms and explosives.
Egypt's current economic situation provides an excellent opportunity as well. Whether al Adel will continue Al Qaeda's strategy of timing attacks against infrastructure that abets economy will be the tell. As seen in Iraq, great masses of unemployed and the rise of the criminal class provides a number of opportunities. Not only for recruitment, but for getting low cost, non-ideological assistance in their activities. In Iraq, they were able to pay unemployed men and boys $100-$300 to lay IEDs and participate in other "low risk" activities without having to gain any ideological hold. They were also able to use existing criminal networks to funnel money, men and arms into the area.
The appointment of the Egyptian al Adel may mean a shift in Al Qaeda's attention. Where they are, as Nelson notes, being made "observers" to the current events, they may be looking to step up their activities in the region to re-assert their relevance. Secondly, al Adel instead of Zawahiri as the Egyptian leadership likely has other political connotations. As noted in the past, Zawahiri has been particularly hard on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Adel as the Egyptian leadership may be a political move that is meant to re-align AQ with the now, more or less, political arm of the Islamist movement like the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas whose Al Qassem Brigade has reportedly been infiltrated by hardliners and Salafis. Zawahiri would make that potential political alliance or at least "truce" difficult if not impossible with his continuous berating of the Brotherhood for their non-violent approach and belief in working through political processes.
The question remains as Nelson suggests:
Al-Qaeda is an anti-democratic organisation that exists in a world in which there seems to be an increasing exuberance for democratic ideas, institutions and processes. To be a legitimate political player, especially nowadays in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda would have to relax its stance on participatory regimes, which would be a very difficult task for an extraordinarily hard line politico-religious organisation.If AQ can make alliances with actual political organizations, they could avoid having to "morph" into the political player required by both the ME revolutions and Maos tenets on guerrilla warfare leaving themselves to remain the militant violent wing without the necessity to continue carrying the ideological banner or making concessions that are against their own tenets. In other words, they would not have to play in politics directly but remain the pure ideological and militant wing of the Islamist movements.
And in general, there is nothing about Al-Qaeda to suggest that it is capable of progressive internal change. Remember, at heart, Al-Qaeda is a reflexively retrogressive organisation that tries to turn the political, religious, and cultural clock back in secular societies by hundreds of years.
Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in this country as well as the surrounding areas would make an excellent partner.