Monday, May 09, 2011

Information War: Al Qaeda's Devolution and Zawahiri the Divisive Leader

Two good articles on the status of al Qaeda and Zawahiri as the next leader of Al Qaeda:

Al Qaeda Is It's Own Worst Enemy

After 9/11 and the destruction of al-Qaeda's headquarters in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda fractured into a moving target, a global cadre of autonomous cells which enabled it to continue to both elude and fight its enemies. However, with the globalisation of his jihad, bin Laden's authority was at once far-reaching and fragmented. Ceding command-and-control to self-defined "al-Qaeda" franchises brought enormous setbacks.

Bin Laden portrayed al-Qaeda as a vanguard group with a clear and simple mandate: to defend Muslims. Every one of his statements made clear that his was a defensive jihad to protect the innocent blood of Muslims from a Crusader onslaught. All of his legal, moral and political arguments rested on this premise. Yet the credibility of bin Laden's claim to be acting in defence of Muslims exploded alongside the scores of suicide bombers dispatched to civilian centres with the direct intention of massacring swathes of (Muslim) civilians.

On the run in Pakistan, bin Laden and his colleagues at "al-Qaeda central" seemed unwilling, but more likely unable, to control their over-zealous offspring. For example, two letters were sent to the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, berating him for his fanaticism, reminding him that scenes of mass slaughter did not help al-Qaeda's cause – and counselling him that to alienate the population would contravene all of the fundamentals of politics and leadership. But Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's savagery did not stop.

The Future of Al Qaeda

Bin Laden's departure will only accelerate this democratising process. What little unifying power bin Laden still exerted has now been entirely removed. Indeed, his death deals a heavy blow to the old guard in "al-Qaeda central", and will probably empower loose affiliates who no longer feel the need to answer to anyone.

Some groups, such as those in Pakistan, will continue the descent into nihilistic chaos, killing for killing's sake. Others, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, will remain primarily preoccupied with lashing out at the Algerian state. Still others, namely al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will view this juncture as an opportunity to go back to basics.

Indeed, since its emergence in January 2009, AQAP has endeavoured to re-focus the jihad towards striking the west. Their most high-profile operations have been assaults on the US and British embassies in Sanaa, the bid by the "underpants bomber" to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and the plot to explode cargo planes over western cities. The latest issue of their English-language magazine is dedicated to providing guidance on, and theological justifications for, attacks in the heart of the west.
 Via Egypt Revolution 2011 and Newser:  Bin Laden's Likely Successor is a Divisive Figure

In his last video, released April 14, Zawahiri spoke for nearly 70 minutes but did not mention bin Laden. Such omissions would have been highly unusual a few years ago but have become more common in Zawahiri’s statements, underscoring the perception that he was effectively in charge. (see Middle Ground: Bin Laden an Inside Job?) (snip)

Analysts, however, said that Zawahiri’s influence on the group should not be minimized.“He has always run al-Qaeda. He was there at every strategic juncture,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor and counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. government. He said it was Zawahiri and other Egyptian jihadists who possessed the skills and experience to transform an Afghan guerrilla movement into an international terrorist organization.

He may not be as charismatic as bin Laden, but he is an extremely devout and faithful Muslim who is also very learned and capable, and that’s what counts,” Hoffman said. “We’re used to thinking in John F. Kennedy terms, but they’re thinking about leaders who have religious gravitas as well as leadership capabilities, which Zawahiri does have.”
The article goes on to suggest that Al Qaeda is irrelevant in the new, democratic Arab Spring and will find support more difficult to obtain.  However, that is both an optimistic outlook and fails to correctly analyze Zawahiri and the general AQ movement.  It is at the moments that Zawahiri and the jihad minded of the organization feel to be the most neglected and marginalized that they hatch their worst, evil and most bloody attacks. 

It is also a part of the organizations history that leaders trying to obtain power over a part or whole of a group tend to believe that they must pull off some daring attack in order to prove their ability to lead.  Personal gravitas has long been the method that up and coming leaders in the movement have gained followers as well as monetary and material support.  They must essentially and continuously prove they are relevant.  Terrorist Rock Stars as one analyst put it recently.

The question is whether Zawahiri, after so many years and nominal control of the organization will have to prove his creds once again or if his focus will be on re-establishing Al Qaeda's Central Command as relevant and in control since they have been discredited in Iraq and have been taking a beating in Afghanistan, turning into drug lords and war lords instead of holy warriors.  Particularly in the face of what the first author noted was the increasing dominance of such branches as AQAP (Al Awlaki in Yemen) and AQ in the Maghreb. 

As previously noted, there is enough of a narcissist in Zawahiri as well as needing to control the message and flow of the network to establish the central goals, that he is hard pressed to countenance upstarts.  Specifically, non-Egyptians that do not go with the program.

The real division within Al Qaeda is about where the organization is going, what they hope to achieve and where to fight the next battle.  Zawahiri has been the proponent of Global Jihad, but has always focused on Egypt to the detriment of other Islamic Jihad Movements around the globe.  He has been slowly moving the organization in that direction and may now have the opportunity to move it there directly.  Coupled with the always necessary need to prove their continuing relevance, especially after an apparent defeat, that means a greater risk for terror attacks.  Not just in retaliation, but because they will need to prove to their own followers that Al Qaeda is not dead just because bin Laden is dead.

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