The State of al-Qaeda

Failed prison break kills 18 and no leader has been named

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In a Baghdad, Iraq high security prison on Sunday, an attempted prison break turned into a violent, three hour-long gun battle, killing at least 18, according to the New York Times. The insurgent commander, who was reported killed, was al-Qaeda leader Huthaifa al-Batawi, known as the "Emir of Baghdad." Iraqi authorities have described him as the organizer of an Oct. 31 attack on a Baghdad church that killed nearly 60 people.

The detention facility in central Baghdad holds 220 detainees, including 38 who are suspected al-Qaeda militants. Those killed in Sunday's prison mutiny were all suspected members of al-Qaeda, a counter-terror official said.

The prison break is viewed as the latest aggressive action of the al-Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden. There are other indications of trouble and unrest within the organization: One week after bin Laden's death, al-Qaeda has still not publicly anointed a leader, signaling possible dissent.

The most likely heir, according to the Washington Post, is Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon and bin Laden’s longtime deputy. Yet U.S. counterterrorism officials said said his ascendance was by no means guaranteed, because "he is not popular within certain circles of the group." And Zawahiri has rivals, among them two veteran Libyan jihadis, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi.

While Zawahiri has been al-Qaeda’s operational commander for years, Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics, said "there is no doubt Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a divisive figure.”

In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs, Max Boot considers what the loss of a strong leader such as bin Laden will mean for al-Qaeda:

Osama bin Laden... represented the face of al Qaeda and his removal constitutes a serious blow. Many experts doubt that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s longtime deputy, will be able to replace bin Laden successfully, because he is not as charismatic or popular.

Lawrence Wright, in an article for Der Spiegel, adds the following background:

He ran his own terrorist organization in Egypt in the 1970s without success. He is a very polarizing leader. And, owing to ethnic rivalry within al-Qaida, it is also problematic that he is Egyptian

Nonetheless, for a widespread group such as al-Qaeda, the lack of a strong leader is not necessarily dispositive. Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, told the Washington Post that the jihadists do not obsess over who is the number one or number two leader of a particular group. In fact, it is not clear if bin Laden needs to be replaced with an official number one leader, as this type of structure is not necessarily needed for a decentralized organization such as al-Qaeda.”

Boot himself says that bin Laden’s demise "could even provide an opportunity for a new group or leader -- someone like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born chief of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- to step forward and assume the leadership of the global jihad."

Far greater of a threat to al-Qaeda are the revolutions in the Middle East. In his home country, according to the Washington Post, Zawahiri is increasingly seen "as an irrelevant relic of a prior age. For decades, he insisted that violence and terrorism were the only way to bring about political change in Arab countries. The mostly peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have proved him wrong and drowned out his message."

To this Wright adds, "This is a time of great testing for [al-Qaeda]: If they cannot draw attention to themselves at this point in time, then it will be difficult for them to have any standing in the future. In that case, the train would be passing them by."

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