Exactly one week after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 , CIA agent Gary Schroen sat on a plane heading for Afghanistan. He had six hand-picked men with him, as well as laptops, radio equipment, instant coffee and $3 million in hundred-dollar bills. His mission: "Capture bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice." That is how Schroen remembers the unambiguous assignment given to him by the then-head of the CIA's counterterrorism operations, Cofer Black.
Schroen did not manage to accomplish his mission. It was only nine-and-a-half years later, on May 1, 2011, that an unnamed member of a US special forces unit shot the al-Qaida chief dead in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And the head of the Saudi Arabian terrorist was never flown to Washington. According to the White House, US soldiers buried the body of bin Laden in the Arabian Sea in the middle of the night instead.
For almost an entire decade, this haggard man with the instantly recognizable features, the large eyes and the strange, soft voice formed the image which the world's public associated with al-Qaida. When he released a new message, whether on the internet or via TV station Al Jazeera, it was always breaking news. Intelligence analysts in countries all over the world worked overtime to translate the text from Arabic, interpret what it meant and adjust their risk analysis accordingly.
Climate Change and Globalization
The messages from the underground also aroused much interest on jihadist Internet forums. The "Emir" -- as his followers called bin Laden -- only revealed himself two or three times a year, so they paid close attention to see what he expected of them. Once it was a demand for revenge for the Muhammad cartoons, another time it was a renewed threat against the US. In his last messages, he spoke about climate change and globalization. It was not always clear what he wanted. But the evidence that he was alive was reason enough to celebrate for al-Qaida's supporters, and every time was a triumph: You aren't going to catch him!
But in the end, the US did get him. And since bin Laden's death, al-Qaida's new "emir" has been the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. He is a doctor, terrorist, practitioner of mass murder -- and also a pretty boring man.
Al-Qaida managed the succession without open arguments breaking out, and all the major factions seem to have recognized the new chief. Cyber-jihadists assure each other that they are fighting for the cause of religion, not for their emirs, and that they will continue to do so. And yet something is different. Because just as the elimination of bin Laden was of the highest symbolic importance for the US, so his face was central to al-Qaida and its followers.
On the one hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri was a founding member of al-Qaida and has been part of the network for a long time. On the other hand, he does not inspire; he is regarded as dull and argumentative. His starting position is therefore difficult -- so difficult, in fact, that he is "bound to exceed the expectations for his tenure because those expectations are incredibly low," says William McCants, a US terrorism expert and the founder of a blog called Jihadica. Despite that, McCants says, al-Zawahiri is also "a seasoned revolutionary and more pragmatic than his predecessor." That, he adds, "will stand the organization in good stead as it copes with the complexities created by the Arab Spring."
Just One of Many Terrorist Groups
There are, however, further challenges facing the Egyptian, as others have noted. Berlin-based terrorism expert Guido Steinberg, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has stressed the shift in the regional equilibrium which has accompanied al-Zawahiri's appointment. "Al-Zawahiri must now urgently build up a cadre from Saudi Arabia into a credible and well-known leader, in order to preserve al-Qaida's internal equilibrium and to counteract the impression that the terrorist network is now little more than a reincarnation of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad that al-Zawahiri used to command," he says. If he doesn't succeed in doing that, Steinberg says, "al-Qaida will be threatened with the loss of potential recruits and, most importantly, money from the Gulf." For the secretive donors, al-Qaida would then be merely "one out of many terrorist groups."
In other words, the al-Qaida brand would be under serious threat.
Australian al-Qaida expert Leah Farrall, a counterterrorism researcher at the University of Sydney's United States Study Centre, believes the biggest vulnerability the network is currently facing is "its inaction, or perceptions of its inaction and impotency, which will prove challenging for a new leadership yet to put its stamp on the organization." To put it another way, al-Zawahiri needs a high-profile operation, preferably a major attack, to prevent potential criticism of his supposed policies and priorities. Since Osama bin Laden's death, al-Qaida has committed no spectacular attack, even though the network has sworn revenge.
If the impression of inactivity hardens, Farrall believes, some al-Qaida factions might well make their displeasure known to the outside world. Intergenerational conflict could be the result, "as the younger generation agitates for action, while the older generation cautions for patience." If this were to happen, the dispute could also spill over into other regions where al-Qaida is active.
But accurate information on al-Qaida's actual capabilities is not available. It seems certain that the powerful branch in Yemen -- known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP -- currently has a lot of freedom of movement thanks to the chaos in the country. This is potentially worrying, as AQAP has repeatedly proven that it has both the desire and the ability to operate internationally. Several attempted attacks on aircraft have failed only narrowly. There have even been rumors that AQAP is considering the production of highly poisonous gas.
It's only been four months since bin Laden's death, and still far too early to make any definitive conclusions. Al-Qaida has been around for a long time -- either 13 years or more than two decades, depending on how you define its founding. In any case, a third of a year is not a significant period of time.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, however, has made clear that he wants to continue with the campaign of terror. "Pursue America, which killed the Imam of the Mujahideen, threw his body into the sea, and then captured his women and sons," he said in a message released in mid-August. But he also warned that "the Muslim movement in general, and the jihadi movement in particular, should wage the battle of intellectual argument just as much as the battle of weapons."
What he meant by that is unclear. And so the reaction to the speech in jihadist circles on the Internet was, again, well below the levels of excitement which used to follow a statement from bin Laden. It seems that both sides -- al-Qaida supporters as well as the rest of the world -- are still waiting for a sign of what al-Qaida is capable of under al-Zawahiri.