Arab Spring poses greatest challenge to al-Zawahiri after bin Laden's death

Al-Zawahiri's crucial challenge is determining the reason why such a wide gap exists between al-Qaeda and the Arab masses. [ReutersTV/Reuters]

Al-Zawahiri's crucial challenge is determining the reason why such a wide gap exists between al-Qaeda and the Arab masses. [ReutersTV/Reuters]

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Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri's succession of Osama bin Laden as emir of Al-Qaeda did not come as a surprise to many.

The Egyptian doctor had been a companion to bin Laden for decades. His name was the most widely circulated of all potential candidates to become the leader of al-Qaeda since bin Laden's death on May 2nd in a US commando raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But what does al-Zawahiri's ascendance to the top of al-Qaeda mean under current circumstances?

Al-Zawahiri will undoubtedly face a number of challenges, some of which are inherited from the bin Laden era, and some are related to the current situation in the Middle East, particularly the so-called "Arab Spring".

Al-Zahawari inherits an organization constantly looking for safe havens

Inherited challenges are nothing new to al-Zawahiri, who knows them all too well, especially the continuous bleeding in the ranks of al-Qaeda's General Command (not the subsidiaries). The security pressures the organization is under, especially in the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, cost al-Qaeda a number of prominent leaders who were killed in attacks by Pakistani forces or by pilotless drones.

This pressure has apparently forced the organization's leaders to abandon their strongholds in those areas and seek safer quarters, including densely populated areas. This signifies that al-Qaeda leaders are constantly looking for new safe havens in order to regroup, instead of using them to build up their forces and prepare for future operations, as safe havens normally afford organizations the opportunity to accomplish. This was the case with the former emirate of Afghanistan during Taliban rule, when training camps "graduated" a large number of militants, including individuals who participated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

In addition to the continuous security challenges facing the leadership of al-Qaeda, it is clear that al-Zawahiri will have to deal with the additional challenge of regulating the relationship between his emirate and the organization's branches around the world. However, as dealing with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq illustrated, regulating such relationships is not an easy proposition, especially when the leadership is geographically distant from its branches and communication between them is difficult, as the case is now.

Among other inherited challenges is the issue of finding a solution to the dilemma of the "aversion" some jihadists have towards al-Qaeda's practices, even though those jihadists are supposedly the principal allies of the organization, which claims to follow a jihadist methodology. This means al-Zawahiri has to determine how to reconcile the new leadership of al-Qaeda and jihadist organizations that have publicly renounced its practices, such as the Islamic Group in Egypt and the jihadist ideologue, Dr. Fadl (Sayyed Imam Sharif, who preceded Zawahiri as emir of the Islamic Jihad group), in addition to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

All those groups have issued reviews that were vehemently critical of practices attributed to al-Qaeda or its subsidiaries and deemed contrary to the teachings of Islam, which had prompted al-Zawahiri to personally respond to the criticism, issue criticisms of the reviews, and defend al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri's responses ignited a fierce controversy between him and those he assailed in his responses, specifically Dr. Fadl and leaders of the Islamic Group in Egypt.

Arab youth at odds over al-Qaeda methods

The most crucial inherited challenge al-Zawahiri faces, however, will undoubtedly be the "Arab Spring" which has demonstrated that Arab masses, especially the youth, do not sympathize with al-Qaeda and its ideas, and its methods in particular, even if the goals are sometimes congruent.

The goal of regime change, for example, is shared by al-Qaeda and the majority of the Arab population. But while al-Qaeda states that the goal is to overthrow the regime and replace it with one that applies Islamic Sharia laws, the prevailing opinion among the masses is that the regime ought to be changed because it is either undemocratic, or dictatorial, repressive, authoritarian, unjust, and does not permit a peaceful transfer of power, not because it does not rule in accordance with Islamic Sharia.

Much has been written about how, in some respects, the popular revolts in Arab countries surprised not only the incumbent Arab presidents, such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahiri may have been among those taken by surprise, due to the fact that his group, Islamic Jihad, which he merged with al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, never believed in peaceful change of government, arguing instead, since the 1970s, that change can only be achieved through the use of force. Islamic Jihad's ideology was premised on the formation of armed cells, in the military specifically, to surreptitiously work towards overthrowing ruling regimes that it considered apostate, such as the former ruling regime in Egypt.

The merger with al-Qaeda does not necessarily imply that al-Zawahiri changed his thinking, only that he gave a higher priority to fighting the West over fighting the Egyptian regime, under the pretext of "incapacity", after the Egyptian regime had defeated Islamic Jihad militarily in the 1990s.

In view of that, al-Zawahiri may not have expected change to come to Egypt the way it did. The people of Egypt, millions of whom came out calling for regime change, did not carry pictures of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda played no known role in mobilizing the people who took to the streets demanding peaceful change and renounced the use of violence.

The Egyptian challenge

Now that Mubarak's regime has been toppled, al-Zawahiri no doubt tracks the situation in Egypt, his home country. But despite the fall of the regime, the situation that has emerged probably does not appeal to al-Zawahiri, especially as he watches his jihadist "brothers" establish political parties to participate in the elections, which the government that was formed by the military - who took over from Mubarak after he was deposed – promises will be fair and free, a kind of election Egypt was not accustomed to during the Mubarak regime.

Holding such elections -- despite pledges of fairness and freedom -- would likely not please the new leadership of al-Qaeda. Elections, political pluralism, co-existence between secular and national parties, and the peaceful transfer of power are all concepts that are not in circulation in al-Qaeda. Just as they did not exist in a true sense during the Mubarak regime, which did hold elections that were neither free nor fair, and at the end of the day the regime did not permit a genuine transfer of power from the government to the opposition.

For that reason, the position the new al-Qaeda leadership adopts prior to the upcoming elections in Egypt in September is of great interest, especially al-Zawahiri's position on both the nomination and voting aspects of the participation of jihadists and other Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist) in the elections.

Al-Zawahiri faces the same issue with Tunisia where the new government is preparing to conduct new competitive elections with the participation of Islamists, who were suppressed during the Ben Ali regime. It is likely that what al-Zawahiri has to say about Egypt would also apply to Tunisia, but his problem with Tunisian Islamists might be thornier because of the fact that Tunisian Islamists hold views that contrast with al-Qaeda's views, specifically the freedom of women outlined in the Tunisian Constitution.

The biggest "Arab Spring" problem al-Zawahiri will have to address is the situation in Libya where NATO has taken charge of protecting civilians against attacks by the regime of Colonel Moammer Gadaffi, a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Al-Zawahiri knows without a doubt that NATO intervention enjoyed wide support in Libya, particularly among opponents of Gadaffi, who know that without the intervention by the UN Security Council, which in March authorized the protection of civilians, the Libyan leader would have marched on their cities and annihilated the rebels, as he almost did when his tanks reached Benghazi and threatened to wipe out the opposition in their own strongholds.

Al-Zawahiri has so far maintained a position that the rebels must fight NATO if it lands troops in Libya. He undoubtedly knows that NATO has no intention of occupying that Arab country and would have declined to intervene against Gadaffi if it did not know for certain that he would have slain thousands of people in Benghazi. Gadaffi had just threatened to pursue his opponents from house to house and alley to alley.

In conclusion, it is clear that al-Zawahiri is facing a myriad of challenges, whether they are tied to security (stopping the bleeding in the ranks) or to ideology (aversion by some jihadists to al-Qaeda's practices). Above all, the biggest challenge is determining the reason why such a wide gap exists between al-Qaeda and a large segment of the Arab masses even if their goals converge at times.

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    حسين خليل

    2011-8-27

    Al Qaeda will see itself falling apart in the near future. Al Zawahiri will not be able to lead all the factions and cells of Al Qaeda; those parts will be divided and isolated. Each leader will want to be his own boss or the leader of the terrorist organization. I advise all terrorists -- Al Zawahiri first and foremost -- to surrender to the authorities before it’s too late, especially since they all being watched now that their most dangerous man has been discovered, defeated and killed; so what should they expect? Al Zawahiri is weak and a coward, and he’s a dog who won’t help them or give anything to them or their organization. He will lead them and all of Al Qaeda to their end, God willing.

  • عكيف البدر

    2011-8-26

    The criminality of Ayman al-Zawahiri is almost similar to that of the buried Osama bin Laden, for I think that the former will follow the same approach of criminality, murder and bloodshed. In fact, nothing will change except that the change of the leadership of this organization will have a considerable psychological impact on terrorist members and al-Qaeda followers. In fact, I think that many criminal members in this organization considered Osama bin Laden as their spiritual authority. Consequently, their policies as well as their terrorist work strategy will change. I also think that their terrorist acts will decline in the near future.

  • علي فارس

    2011-8-24

    This old sputtering man does not differ much from the criminal Bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda organization, who was killed and disposed of in a targeted, matchless operation. I pray to God that the future of Al-Zawahiri and his death will be the same, and that this, God willing, will happen as soon as possible, so we can get rid of the evil of this coward, who will certainly try to work hard to show his strength and to show that he is able to lead this failed terrorist organization. However, I do not think that he has the qualifications of the most dangerous criminal and terrorist Bin Laden, who had his own way of affecting all the terrorists in the world and gathering all the armed groups under the name of Al-Qaeda, as well as the manner of his sermons which he had carried out and through which he tried to affect the Muslim youth. Therefore, I feel that the criminal Bin Laden was more dangerous than this dirty man, even if both are equal in their filth and thoughts.

  • مهد علي

    2011-8-16

    All the divine religions have denounced the killing of human life, bloodshed, displacement and violation of properties; unless by lawful right. Meanwhile, the terrorist organization of al-Qaeda pretends to be Muslim. However, this organization has nothing to do with the Islamic religion because Islam prohibits the killing of a human life. Al-Qaeda has waged a war against Islam in order to tarnish Muslims’ image in front of the public opinion. However, this organization has become on the verge of collapse, especially after the death of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden in one of the attacks that have been carried out against this organization. It seems that the world has become safe after the collapse of this terrorist organization. However, it seems that al-Qaeda has refused to die and to disappear. In fact, the mastermind of this organization has intended to follow in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden. Thus, Ayman Al-Zawahiri intends to replace Osama bin Laden, who was the leader of al-Qaeda. In fact, Al-Zawahiri was the pupil of Bin Laden. Thus, he knows everything about the events that have taken place. Ayman Al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian national and he had been the leader of Al-Jihad organization in Egypt. Then, he traveled to many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and then Afghanistan, where he became the right hand and the mastermind of bin Laden.

  • فهد محسن

    2011-8-7

    Terrorism and the cowardly terrorists have engaged in many filthy activities all over the Arab and Muslim worlds. Their previous leader, Osama bin Laden, plotted many criminal activities, and we, as Arabs, were always against him, and we did not allow him to do whatever he wanted. However, these bombings have taken many lives, including those of women, children, men and old people, and no region was spared from them and their evil. Even places of worship did not escape their evil and their ingrained hatred for Arabs and Muslims, despite the fact that they claim to be Muslims and to support Islam. But the fact is that they are not what they claim to be, and they have nothing to do with Islam at all. They use religion as a mere cover for their filthy activities, in order to prove to the world that they have power. They wanted to tarnish the image of Islam and Muslims to the West, to the point that the cowardly bin Laden bombed the World Trade Center in America. We all denounce this act, as this affected the lives of Muslims living abroad. We do not approve of terrorism and the filthy activities that it engages in. Rather, we decry such things, as these are people who harbor hatred for the people everywhere, and we do not know the real reason and their motive for carrying out these despicable criminal activities. Now that the world has gotten rid of the evil of bin Laden, another individual has surfaced, and it is the cowardly Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who has been studying everything that his friend bin Laden had been doing in terms of evil and hateful activities. He was his accomplice in all these things, and now he has taken over the reins of control after him, and once again, acts of violence and brutality have begun to take place everywhere in the Arab world. All the bombings and suicide attacks that are taking place in the Arab countries, such as Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and everywhere, are being carried out by these terrorists. We denounce these criminal acts that are being carried out repeatedly against the Arabs, particularly the violence taking place in Iraq, and the killing of innocent citizens during the recent bombings that have taken place, and especially the Dujail massacre, which was a criminal and hateful act perpetrated against Iraqis. Moreover, there is the sowing of sectarian strife, in which the filthy Iran is also implicated, as it has never ever liked the Iraqis. We, too, denounce all these despicable acts that it is carrying out in cahoots with Al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army.

  • حماد علي

    2011-8-6

    We condemn all the terrorist operations that have taken place in Iraq, from the north to the south. And we want to say to al-Qaeda that Al-Zawahri will suffer the same fate as Osama bin Laden. Thus, what you have done to Muslims will not be in your interest. In fact, we condemn all your criminal operations. May God take revenge on these cowardly and despicable terrorists. May God destroy them, because they don’t want the well-being of the Islamic nation. As Arab and Iraqi people, we must prevent al-Qaeda from practicing cruelty and oppression against safe citizens. Thus, the governments must pay attention to the issue of terrorism. Victory will be achieved soon, God willing, as God Almighty said: “Victory from God and an imminent conquest.” -Surah as-Saff. Amen.

  • يوسف عبدالخالق

    2011-8-2

    A thousand curses be on the cowardly and venomous al-Qaeda, which kills innocent people for no reason. It always attacks safe, residential areas and the important official departments. The despicable, accursed and low-life Ayman al-Zawahiri took over the reins after the spiteful infidel Osama bin Laden wanting to kill and destroy people everywhere across the Arab world. I, along with Muslims in all parts of the earth, hate al-Qaeda and I ask God to disgrace them in this world before the afterlife. Osama was working to recruit young people and those who have not reached the legal age of adulthood, and even the mentally retarded people, to blow themselves up and commit suicide in front of an important building or in a gathering of people. It has implanted sectarian discrimination and it still depends on the killing, destruction and slaughter of innocent people in different places.

  • سامي جلال

    2011-8-2

    May Allah curse al-Qaeda, make their attacks imprecise, disrupt them and overwhelm them with evil. May Allah take revenge on the despicable Ayman Zawahiri who is claiming the lives of the innocent and children and sowing sectarianism everywhere the same way You did with the damned Osama bin Laden. May Allah disrupt their unity and deprive them of good times till the souls of the innocent are relived. In fact, al-Qaeda is involved everywhere in violent acts, murder and sabotage. Everyone knows that the bombing of churches that happened in Egypt aimed to sow sedition. Besides, the bombing which occurred in Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad raised our pain and aimed to sow sectarianism and scatter the different sects. In addition, the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Militias are collaborating with Iran in order to wreak havoc everywhere on the Muslim Arab territories. Thus, we, as Arab and Muslims, must unite and join efforts in order to face al-Qaeda and whoever collaborated with it to carry out murderous acts. May Allah deprive them of any peaceful day, disrupt their unity and destabilize Earth under them, Amen O Allah the Almighty.

  • طلعت احمد

    2011-7-25

    Even if the deceased Osama, the accursed al-Zawahiri or any other member of the damned al-Qaeda, are washed with all kinds of detergents, we will not be able to remove the blood stains on them. This organization has killed and destroyed many peoples, from Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and other countries. I pray to Almighty God to have mercy on us, and spare us the crimes of al-Qaeda. May He also curse and punish its members severely.

  • كمال عزيز

    2011-7-6

    I strongly urge the Iraqi government to be cautious and beware of the attacks of al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri, who want to take revenge on the Iraqi heroes. Al-Qaeda is a despicable organization which does not want the best for the Arab and Muslim nations. It spreads its poison in order to be the first and last. But this is impossible. They carry out a lot of acts of terrorism, such as bombings and other evil works in order to spread fear and anxiety in the Muslim world. What al-Qaeda has done in all the Islamic cities is not insignificant. Therefore, there should be a unified effort to get rid of those groups by arresting many of the leaders of al-Qaeda and its criminals. Thankfully, most of them are under control and some of them have made very serious confessions, and the security forces are very keen to prosecute these criminals. The Iraqi heroes are challenging al-Qaeda and terrorism. The despicable Osama bin Laden carried out acts of terrorism against innocent Iraqis, and he was doing his work by sending some mercenaries to Iraq in order to blow up and ruin everything. He committed a lot of crimes in Iraq. He widowed many women and orphaned a lot of children because of his despicable terrorist acts. I ask God to curse him and to cast him into the fire. Al-Qaeda will not be able to harm Iraq and the Iraqis. The terrorists have relationships with al-Qaeda or Iran or other organizations, which want to destroy the Arabs and Muslims and implant sectarian strife by blowing up places of worship. They have hostility toward all people. God curse al-Qaeda and make them degenerates on the ground and convulse the ground under their feet. I ask all Muslims, and young people in particular, to pay attention to this important issue, and I call on the clerics to educate young people through speeches and by studying teaching at schools and universities.

  • خضر ميعاد

    2011-7-6

    A thousand curses be upon the offender, al-Zawahiri, who wants to take the place of the cowardly, accursed terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The terrorists have attacked the Muslims and carried out kidnappings of senior officials, killings and assassinations of some important personalities, in addition to the acts of sabotage, bombings and booby-trapping cars, and they have used the gangs to kidnap children and trade in their organs. Al-Zawahiri was the leader of the gang, who drew the plans for killing and slaughter. I want to say to the terrorists that the Arabs are good people and do not deserve all these cowardly acts. The Arab Muslims are strong and they can arrest members of the movement of the Taliban and al-Qaeda that do not want the good of Arab Muslims. Thankfully, most of them are in custody, especially as the security forces are very keen to prosecute these criminals. Al-Qaeda is diminishing now, God willing, thanks to the honorable Muslims who are really brave. Al-Qaeda has caused many problems for the Muslims by attacking the mosques and holy sites. The Muslims know that al-Qaeda wants to distort the image of the Muslims. I hope al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahri face their fate soon, as has happened to Osama bin Laden.

  • حسان

    2011-7-2

    May God curse the despicable and cowardly al-Qaeda, which has long been destroying the lives of the people and murdering them, a thousand times. It is based on murder, slaughter and bombing cars so as to carry out its dirty suicide operations. I pray against it from the bottom of my heart so as to be rid of them forever. Whatever happens, we will never forget what the accursed Osama Bin Laden has done. He was the main and first schemer in the hatching of all these plans, and he was followed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who follows his approach. I would like to ask all the Arab and the Islamic world to get rid of the infidels of the al-Qaeda organization, to curse them until Judgment Day, to curse them and kill them whenever you find them, and to call for their execution. Moreover, we call for their execution, as they kill people who have not committed any crimes. I call upon all those who have sufficient power in any Islamic Arabic country to fight the terrorists of the cowardly, dirty al-Qaeda organization, and I pray against them, asking God to curse them, scatter them and disperse them, because those dirty, hateful people have brought all the troubles to us. I call upon all the Muslim youth to stop the terrorists of the al-Qaeda organization, so as not to bring worry and oppression to us.