Bin Laden's Biographer on the Future of Al Qaeda

In a new Frontline interview, Steve Coll offers his take on how Al Qaeda will adapt

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Now that Osama bin Laden has been killed, al Qaeda watchers are going to have to start paying attention to his likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahri. The Egyptian-born surgeon and longtime Al Qaeda no. 2 is thought to be the new head of the terrorist network, though that hasn't been made official. In a an interview with Frontline, Bin Laden biographer Steve Coll addresses some of the big questions about the future of Al Qaeda and its leadership, as well as Bin Laden's last years in hiding, and the Pakistani government's role in keeping his location a secret. Coll is convinced some in the Pakistani government knew where Bin Laden was.

On Al-Zawahri's leadership challenges: Coll says the new Al Qaeda leader lacks the charisma, the narrative, and the communications skills of his predecessor. "His record is one of alienating his colleagues, fighting over dogma, even within the Islamist movement. And as a communicator, he is less effective. His books are turgid and dogmatic." In part, Coll says his personality was formed by suffering as a youth, serving prison time and getting tortured in Cairo.

So in some sense, it's not surprising that he's always carried around a lot of determined anger and a sense of drive for revenge. Bin Laden never was arrested in a serious way, throughout his entire life. He floated through the narrative of his own heroism and his own sort of role as a global leader, and he came from a very modern setting and he had a gentle temperament.

Al Zawahari will face the unique challenge of holding together a disparate terrorist network while fighting off challenges to his leadership.

There are other charismatic personalities that have surfaced over the last five or ten years, al Libi and others who– this guy who escaped from prison in Afghanistan. And I would not– and given that the organization is already decentralized to an extent through franchises such as the one in Yemen, it would not be surprising to see breakaway groups attempt to establish themselves as the rightful heirs of bin Laden's legacy.

On Bin Laden's post-9/11 lifestyle: Coll says he wasn't surprised to learn Bin Laden had been living with family members in a fairly modern house, rather than a cave in Tora Bora.

I always thought, reading his statements, that it was transparent that he had access to international media on a continuous basis. There was quite a lot about what he was saying that suggested someone who was watching satellite television, perhaps locked behind walls, and getting riled up by things he saw in the international media that he felt like he needed to reply to....

The initial briefings suggest that his youngest wife was with him. Taken as an indication of what we know about his marriages, that would seem to suggest that his Yemeni wife ... a much younger woman who he married late, while he was in Afghanistan, might have found her way to Pakistan to be with him.

On what Pakistan knew, and when: The fact that Bin Laden was finally found in a large home in a residential neighborhood of Abbottabad, where the Pakistan Military Academy is located and which is largely owned by the military or its officers, "suggests as much that he was under Pakistani state control as that he was hiding," Coll says. But so far, we don't know who owned the land. Prosecutors should and will investigate that, but there may be another camp within the U.S. government that wants to take Pakistan's story that it didn't know Bin Laden was there at face value.
"It strains credulity that you could build a million-dollar home with heavy fortifications, 12- to 15-foot walls, and house within it the world's most wanted man in a city like Abbottabad, which is essentially a military cantonment town, and not have anyone in the military know that he was there...."
"I think the rest of the United States government will be reluctant to challenge the Pakistani state over what I presume will be its defense, that it didn't know anything about this and that it was shocked, shocked to discover that Osama bin Laden was living near its West Point."

Here's Coll talking about Al Qaeda's new leadership:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.