Bad news for Al Qaeda's junior class of terrorists: your new boss is kind of a jerk. That's the takeaway from a new batch of reports describing Ayman al-Zawahiri as an "unloved micromanager" with no charisma and a dearth of combat experience. They don't bode well for Zawahiri's leadership of the terrorist network.
The first unflattering anecdote comes from Noman Benotman, the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who's since renounced violence and resides at a British counterterrorism think tank. Benotman recalls a story from the late 80s in east Afghanistan in which Zawahiri ordered his followers to dig a large hole.
"(Al-Zawahri) said it is just a swimming pool for the people to enjoy themselves in the summer," Benotman explains. "But it ended up being a prison when they finished it." Apparently the jail was supposed to "impress on the men fighting with al-Zawahri how far he would go to enforce his will and establish discipline" and has become part of "jihadi lore." Tough love?
Next up, author Peter Bergen tells NBC News that Zawahiri is a "controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden's charisma."
"He's (al-Zawahri) not well-liked or well-regarded, even by people in his own Egyptian sort of jihad group," he said. "He's regarded as a divisive figure." Bergen says he might not be able to hold the group together. "When you join al-Qaida you don't swear an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida," he said. "You swear a personal oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. No one describes feelings of love for Ayman al-Zawahri."
Piling on, it looks as though the White House sensed an opportunity to score a PR coup. In a press conference, Obama's top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan belittled the new leader. "Zawahiri is not charismatic," he said, according to a report in Foreign Policy. "He has not been--was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan... and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. And I think you're going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more." A high ranking administration official also sent out a list of anti-Zawahiri trash talking:
- He hasn't demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills during his time in al Qaeda or previously while in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
- His ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissention with al Qaeda.
- Unlike many of al Qaeda's top members, Zawahiri has not had actual combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a "soft" image.
- No matter who is in charge, he will have a difficult time leading al Qaeda while focusing on his own survival as the group continues to hemorrhage key members responsible for planning and training operatives for terrorist attacks.
Finally, the BBC notes that his delayed ascension to the top of Al Qaeda suggests the group may be divided over his ability to lead:
Our correspondent adds that the delay in announcing Zawahiri as al-Qaeda chief - coming as it does more than six weeks after Bin Laden's death, despite his being the obvious choice - may point to divisions within the leadership.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.