Al Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, January 2000

Source: Flashpoint Partners/Evan Kohlmann

Multiple news organizations are reporting that Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer with years of operational experience in al Qaeda, has been named acting leader of the organization in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death. The choice of al-Adel, and the unclear status of Ayman al-Zawahiri, offer some insights into the current state of the organization and the challenges it faces in a post-bin Laden world.

The key takeaways for me are first, that the Egyptians still have a considerable degree of influence within the organization during a period of disarray. It is worth keeping in mind that bin Laden’s longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri is also Egyptian, and a good part of al Qaeda’s early membership came from al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. The two organizations formally merged in June of 2001.

Second, while this may be a short-term solution for them, the fact is no one will be able to fill bin Laden’s very large shoes as a leader and public figure. There are questions within the organization about the political viability of al-Zawahiri, his presumed successor. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics, told the Washington Post, “There is no one else who has his weight or intellect. He is a giant among the remaining figures in al-Qaeda. But there is no doubt Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a divisive figure.”

Third, while bin Laden can still inspire them posthumously and serve as a propaganda figure, the key question now will be whether al-Adel, al-Zawahiri or someone else can hold all of these different organizations together under the al Qaeda umbrella or if some will split off and focus their energies on their regional political and sectarian issues. Secession by some of the local franchises or affiliates from the main al Qaeda organization should be considered as a real possibility in the weeks and months ahead, especially if internal political disagreements can’t be sorted out.

Fourth, as Peter Bergen points out, al-Adel and al-Zawahiri are going to have to deal with the fallout of the massive intelligence breach to the organization. They have to assume that the organization’s most sensitive secrets have been compromised or eventually will be as U.S. intelligence officials go through the treasure trove of information recovered during the bin Laden operation. This may force them into several courses of action, including – but not limited to – jumping the gun on operations before they are fully ready to be carried out, or aborting planned operations because the operational security and secrecy of the plan might be compromised.

The death of bin Laden doesn’t automatically mean the death of the organization he created or the ideology he inspired. Georgetown’s Security Studies Program director Bruce Hoffman points out historical examples where the decapitation of terrorist organizations have not meant the end of the campaigns. [Full disclosure: I am currently a graduate student in the SSP, although not in any of Hoffman’s classes.] But bin Laden’s successors will clearly have their work cut out for them in keeping the organization as a viable force to attack the United States and its allies.

Al Qaeda’s biggest problem may be in the inherent nature of the organization itself – it has no political means of achieving its objectives, only by means of asymmetric warfare. Simply put, al Qaeda can only exist and function as a terrorist organization. As my former professor Paul Pillar said, it has no equivalent of Sinn Fein to pursue a political agenda and won’t sit down at a negotiating table with domestic or international leaders. It can’t be held accountable for delivering results by a political base of constituents, as Hezbollah or Hamas are. After the revolutions of the Arab Spring which forced regime changes or political reforms, al Qaeda and its ilk may simply be less appealing to people as an option when they see political objectives can be achieved by other means.

The worst thing that could happen to al Qaeda or any group like it is to become irrelevant, and that is precisely what al-Adel and al-Zawahiri have to deal with right now if they want the organization as it existed before bin Laden’s death to survive.

Update: On a related note, check out this article in the Atlantic Wire.

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