The video of Ayman al-Zawahiri released on June 8 is most noteworthy for what he did not do. Despite being the official second-in-command of al-Qaeda, he did not declare, or even hint, that he is now the group’s official head. This indicates that Zawahiri is fearful of creating a fissure by asserting his authority, aware that the rank-and-file is not united behind him. It also means that the top leadership has been unable to communicate to decide on a successor, allowing contradictory reports that Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, or Hamza bin Laden have taken the helm to spread confusion.
On June 9, a video apparently from al-Qaeda’s media arm made its way onto a jihadist forum. The tape announced that Hamza bin Laden, at only 21 years of age, was the new al-Qaeda chief. It was then deleted. He made his debut in a video in 2005 showing a battle between Pakistani forces and jihadists. An associate of Osama said in 2008 that Hamza was being groomed to replace his father. His escape from his father’s compound on May 1 is the type of story that jihadists crave in a leader. However, experienced terrorists won’t be enthusiastic about being led by a 21-year old who only became their leader because of his last name.
At the same time, there is a report that Zawahiri has taken over. Dutch intelligence documents detail a meeting held in Kuram, Pakistan, on May 9 based on the testimony of local informants. Zawahiri is said to have agreed to become the leader after Saad bin Laden rebuffed his suggestion that he replace his father. The main problem with this story is that Saad is believed to have been killed in a drone strike in 2009. It is also hard to imagine that there is an informant that deep inside al-Qaeda’s inner circle.
Al-Qaeda has a difficult decision with regards to Zawahiri. If he is not chosen as bin Laden’s successor, it will be the ultimate insult and will expose a division within the group. On the other hand, his choosing could intensify these divisions. The mere fact that al-Qaeda’s affiliates, with the exception of al-Qaeda in Iraq, have not reflexively endorsed him shows apprehension. “It is of course an anathema for al-Qaeda to hold free and fair elections, but if such elections were held, al-Zawahiri would most likely have a fight on his hands,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official.
Then there are the reports that Saif al-Adel has been designated the interim head of al-Qaeda. The very term, “interim head,” shows disarray. This was originally reported by Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist who says he has access to senior members of al-Qaeda. It appeared on a jihadist forum around the same time, but it was immediately removed because the administrators felt only an announcement from a known al-Qaeda outlet should be believed. A Pakistani newspaper also reported it. There has been no official response from the terrorist group in response to the rumor.
The divisions within al-Qaeda will not be solved once the succession problem is solved. There is a very real disagreement over strategy and bin Laden’s death and other setbacks will intensify it. The 9/11 Commission says that Saif al-Adel opposed the September 11 attacks, though he later justified them. In 2002, he wrote “We must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused. During six months, we lost what we built in years.” He has also spoken out against the “mostly random” nature of operations and says that the focus should be on “the greater objective” of “the establishment of an Islamic state.”
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a spokesman for al-Qaeda, has written a book critiquing his colleagues. He disapproves of “the culture of killing and destruction” and said more emphasis must be put on “securing a better life for all who live with Islam and in the Islamic state.” It is unclear what role he plays in the group today following his release from Iran. Zawahiri’s former mentor, Dr. al-Fadl, has also harshly condemned the group and wrote that their defeats on the battlefield mean that Allah is not blessing them. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group also wrote a “corrective studies” in 2009 calling for an end to “the use of violence for the sake of change and reforms.”
Zawahiri tried to put a happy face on bin Laden’s death, saying he “achieved what he wanted to do, which is to incite the Islamic nation to holy war and his message had reached all.” He said the decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse was proof of America’s fear.
Don’t be fooled by Zawahiri’s bravado. He’s stretching to spur confidence in bin Laden’s sympathizers and all his viewers know it. The jihadist world is eagerly waiting to know who will replace bin Laden and every day that goes by without an announcement is a display of weakness. And whoever the successor is will fall short of bin Laden’s allure. Al-Qaeda’s stock is falling and only a big victory can revive it.