The Man Who Runs Al-Qaeda

Recovered documents portray Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's replacement, as diligent and more involved than we might have thought

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Since Osama bin Laden's death in May, the al-Qaeda leader's personal correspondence, recovered by Navy SEALs from his home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, has produced a stream of reporting about his life and leadership. According to the reports, bin Laden remained deeply involved in the operational and propagandistic activities of al-Qaeda over the last ten years, defying widely held beliefs that he had become irrelevant inside the leadership of the organization he'd founded nearly a quarter-century earlier. In his writing, he is also quite frank, bemoaning to his closest advisors of the success of U.S. drone strikes and worrying that al-Qaeda had damaged its brand by killing civilians.

The identities of the recipients of bin Laden's letters are still unknown, with the exception of close confidant Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatallah, who functioned as a high-level diplomat, chief of staff, operator, and strategist for al-Qaeda. In the wake of Atiyya's death two weeks ago, possibly by a U.S. drone strike, U.S. officials and analysts have been describing him to the press as more important to al-Qaeda's functioning than Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's deputy and now the head of the organization. While that might be true, the new consensus about Zawahiri -- old, isolated, uninvolved -- sounds an awful like what was said about bin Laden before the captured documents proved otherwise.

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There is a long history of observers either inflating or diminishing Zawahiri in their assessment of his role. In some accounts, he is bin Laden's Svengali, an evil mastermind who pushed his associate into an ill-conceived war with the United States. In others, he is a failed revolutionary who hitched his wagon to bin Laden's star but never played a major role in the organization. Both accounts can coexist because there is so little publicly available information about the inner workings of al-Qaeda.

From time to time, however, we do get glimpses of reality through Zawahiri's private correspondence, whether it was captured on the battlefield by U.S. soldiers or stumbled upon by reporters. The most famous such discovery came in 2004 when Alan Cullison, writing for The Atlantic, disclosed the contents of a computer he had bought in Afghanistan. It contained memos exchanged between members of al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Afghanistan just before the September 11 attacks, including some by Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

From the letters, Zawahiri appears at the center of the organization and its decision-making. He relays messages from other senior leaders to bin Laden, instructs al-Qaeda members in Yemen on how to carry out an attack there, discusses the feasibility of developing a chemical weapons program with al-Qaeda's head of operations, and oversees the merger of his Islamic Jihad organization with al-Qaeda in 2001, which was unpopular with many of Islamic Jihad's members. Zawahiri even took the time to fuss at a subordinate for sloppy bookkeeping and logistics. This is neither a man on the margins of an organization nor a puppet master pulling strings. He is a senior executive at the helm of the joint "company," Qa`idat al-Jihad, that he and Bin Laden launched on the eve of its most ambitious venture. The organization's official name (which never really replaced the more familiar al-Qaeda in popular usage) says everything about Zawahiri's standing within it: Bin Laden's al-Qaeda is first but does not subsume Zawahiri's al-Jihad.

Zawahiri's later correspondence, captured by the U.S., further suggested that Zawahiri played a major management role in al-Qaeda over the last decade. In an oft-cited 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Zawahiri counseled him to avoid excessive violence and to ignore theological differences with other Muslims so as to build popular support. He also reminded Zarqawi that he was privy to Zarqawi's letters to bin Laden, frequently using "we" to indicate that he was speaking on behalf of the senior leadership in Pakistan.

In 2008, the United States captured two more documents from Zawahiri to al-Qaeda senior officers in Iraq. In the letters, he spoke on behalf of the Pakistan-based senior leadership, relaying concerns about the situation in Iraq, and conveyed advice from bin Laden to the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization created by al-Qaeda. Zawahiri seemed to be integral to the relationship between al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq and in Pakistan, and to be deeply involved in the decision-making of both.

Although none of Zawahiri's private letters written during the last three years have yet become public, it's hard to imagine that his influence would have diminished much in that short time. It's true that the Obama Administration has reportedly increased drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda's senior leaders, making it more difficult for them to get things done or communicate with outside franchises. But this was also true during bin Laden's tenure and it did not seem to diminish his influence. As for Zawahiri, the drone strikes do not appear to have significantly impeded his ability to make and distribute propaganda or to write books. His ability to communicate with other al-Qaeda members, then, probably also remains.

There is, of course, one way to settle the questions about Zawahiri's relevance: the U.S. could release the documents captured in Abbottabad. Zawahiri would have good reason to fret over their release. Previous such documents have shown that al-Qaeda's senior leadership worried about the bloodthirstiness of its followers. They have also embarrassed these same leaders for their condescension toward non-Arabs, a bigotry that has no place in the Qur'an and little appeal to potential recruits in, for example, Afghanistan. That the documents are so recent and likely to include al-Qaeda's most senior leadership makes them of even greater interest. Releasing them would require proper vetting to make sure they do not compromise counterterrorism operations, of course. But it would be a good chance to use the ten-year anniversary of September 11, which al-Qaeda would surely love to use for propaganda, instead as an opportunity to embarrass the group, and it's new leader, with a Wikileaks problem of their own.