National Security Network

Lamond: The New Number One In Al-Qaeda

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News Voice of Russia 20 June 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri

Our guest is James Lamond, a policy researcher at the National Security Network here, in Washington D.C. Ayman al-Zawahiri is the new Number One man in al-Qaeda.

James, you did a lot of work on this. How is it that this individual was chosen to succeed on Osama bin Laden, other than he was just Number Two before that?

Zawahiri was actually the next in line for bin Laden’s position. He had been deputy for several years and had been bin Laden’s Number Two for much longer. The organization, which was built largely around bin Laden, rose up and Zawahiri and bin Laden had been partners throughout much of it. They go back to the days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they both fought together in the campaign against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Zawahiri worked largely as a doctor treating refugees in Pakistan, and he often treated bin Laden’s passing ailments, and that’s when the two developed relationship. And then, several years later, they joined forces formally, and Zawahiri became the deputy emir of al-Qaeda, where the bylaw stated that in the event of death of the emir, bin Laden, the deputy would actually take over. So, it would be really more of news if he didn’t get the position than when he did. It’s a kind of natural succession.

Some are asking why it took so long for him to gain this Number One status and become the leader of al-Qaeda. It took 6 weeks since the death of Osama bin Laden for him to be confirmed.

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence, had a funny line about that it’s difficult to count votes when you are in a cave. But, seriously, I think it just took a while for him to gather support among the other al-Qaeda leaders, the member of the advisory council and other elements. That took time because he’s under constant pressure, because counter-terrorism policies happen to be largely successful. It’s difficult for him to communicate, difficult for him to travel abroad, and that makes it more difficult to assure the support, which he knows he needs for the position.

Given the fact that the US deciphered the low-tech way, in which bin Laden was communicating, using couriers, do you think that al-Zawahiri was also afraid that using the same technique of communication he might be found out?

Certainly, and in addition to that it was a matter of intelligence that was gained through the bin Laden raid. There’s a good chance that Zawahiri was nervous about what information may have been picked up by US forces in regard to his positioning.

I think it was Robert Gates who mentioned that Zawahiri will also face the same fate that his former boss did, being that blunt about it.

Zawahiri is under a lot of pressure. The US joint programme has been highly successful at taking out various levels of leadership in al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was taken out through a SEAL Team operation. But there’s a joke that Number Three in al-Qaeda is the worst job in the world, because you are easily targeted. And there’ve been over the past several years several Number Threes, because we keep taking them out. And this has been true for mid-levels as well Number Threes. So, there is certainly a chance that Zawahiri could end up with the same fate as bin Laden. And I think that our intelligence, and our military, and our home law enforcement agents have been pretty solid at doing their job, at combating al-Qaeda and at keeping America safe. This is not to downplay the fact that there will always be potential threat. But they are pretty good at it.

What about the criticism of al-Zawahiri that he’s not as charismatic as bin Laden, that he might not have the essential stuff to attract new recruits, especially younger recruits?

Absolutely. He is known for being highly intelligent, he’s known for being ruthless and he’s known for being a logical and operational heavyweight. But he’s a very divisive character within al-Qaeda. He’s known for having a gift of rubbing people the wrong way. As I said, he doesn’t have the charisma that bin Laden had. Bin Laden had the strange kind of charisma that really attracted suitable audiences. Zawahiri doesn’t have that. His speeches that he goes on his video tapes are long, and boring, and just identical, while bin Laden’s had a special appeal.

So, he’s more of a policy guy, as opposed to a real political leader?

Indeed, that’s a good thing to think about. He’s a kind of operational guy. He’s highly intelligent and he gets the ideological side of things. But the actual charisma and leadership are just not there.

Does he have the ability to inspire then? Because, as you know, there are some folks who are really great leaders and lousy administrators, but they’re just great leaders who are able to talk to folk they want to talk to, to inspire them, make them move. Apparently, he can’t?

That’s yet to be seen. For years he had bin Laden as Number One, who had largely played that role. And I think there could be a number of steps he could take to prove he’s able to do this. I think he hasn’t been seen yet. But I’m skeptical of whether or not he has this gift of persuasion and inspiration.

How fractured is al-Qaeda right now, given the fact that bin laden was taken out several weeks now?

There are different levels of what we call al-Qaeda. It’s a bit simplistic, but we can break it down to 3 levels. There’s al-Qaeda Core, al-Qaeda Central – the main organization that was headed by bin Laden and that is currently headed by Zawahiri. Then, there are so-called affiliates – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in Iraq which are sort of affiliate organizations, which are more regionally focused but declared their allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And then there are the inspired ones, the so-called ‘lone wolves’. They go one by one. The al-Qaeda Central is much fractured. They’ve been under pressure for a long time, through the joint programme, through a number of other operations in the region. And with bin Laden’s death it’s definitely a concern for the core organization, they’re under stress. This is less true for affiliate organization and those who are inspired by al-Qaeda.

Apparently, Zawahiri has an Egyptian power base, as opposed to, as we understand, bin Laden’s power base in Saudi Arabia. Any difference in how things might be working with al-Qaeda because of that?

Yes, a lot of al-Qaeda’s historic roots can be traced back to the Arabian Peninsula, and there’s a lot of bin Laden’s appeal. He’s historically from Yemen, and he was also based in Saudi Arabia, and there’s a kind of ethnic divide within al-Qaeda between Egyptians and those from the Arabian Peninsula. We are yet to see what will happen with Zawahiri in leadership, as an Egyptian. He will probably bring in someone from the Arabian Peninsula to be his deputy. That would be a political maneuver that would help shore up his position. But there’s a lot of speculation that it can increase divide.

So, will there be a possible split between Zawahiri’s Egyptian based as opposed to the Arab Peninsula base?

I think it depends a lot on how he perceives going forward, for example, if he brings on more Arabian-based leaders to other top positions. It’s one of the things to look for in the coming weeks.

Another issue is that Zawahiri has mentioned he is certainly not going to deviate from al-Qaeda’s agenda to destroy the West. The bigger issue for him, apparently, and for al-Qaeda is to make sure that western influence and western countries get out of Muslim nations. Obviously, that’s why they wish to attack western nations. Do you see him as being more strident in that tone as opposed to Osama bin Laden?

It’s interesting. For years Zawahiri has been known as causing ideological and shahidic squabbles within al-Qaeda and the larger Islamist radical movement. He has been known for focusing, almost obsessively, on Egypt and its neighboring countries in the Middle East, while bin Laden was known for focusing more on the West, and I mean the US. So, particularly, one of the questions that have to be answered – and I’m sure our intelligence services are really monitoring the conversations they are having – whether or not will Zawahiri focus like a laser on Egypt where he wanted to focus for years. It’s an important question. I think it’s even more important in late of the Arab Spring, where, for years, he have been obsessing about regime change in trying to do so through terrorism and violent politics. We saw that popular uprisings were much more effective.

Obviously, this popular uprising in Egypt is still fluid. We don’t know which way it is going to go. But given that the Egyptian protesters don’t want topple telling them what to do, they don’t want dictators, they don’t want leaders telling them what is it that they want, they don’t want to be a part of political system, how does Zawahiri think he can play into this scenario, given the fact that he obviously wants very strict Islamic law instituted in Egypt?

It’s amazing that there was no room for al-Qaeda in the uprising, in what brought down Mubarak. It’s astonishing how absent was the role they played. And I think that what people were protesting for, what they were fighting for was the opposite of the message that al-Qaeda sends them. It was a message of freedom, and that’s just the opposite of whether the Arab World I prepared to embrace al-Qaeda’s ideology wants them. It was rejected.

Do you think the Arab Spring, as we are calling it, almost makes recruitment for al-Qaeda obsolete?

No. There are going to be serious challenges over the next months and years with regard to terrorism and the Arab Spring. There are a lot of challenges ahead. Yemen, in particular, presents an extreme challenge in terms of counter-terrorism efforts. As far as recruitment going, it’s definitely a blow to it. But there will be always someone recruited. But as for a serious blow to the recruitment? Yes, I think so.

How about al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt?

There really isn’t much of a relationship. They’ve often been on opposite sides of many debates. But the Muslim Brotherhood has – it’s astonishing – a more political role that they’ve sought in Egypt.

And they may be the group that the average Egyptian may turn to as a political party to possibly run Egypt. If that does occur, how does that affect al-Qaeda?

It’s actually more of a blow to al-Qaeda if anything. Again, they’ve been enemies for years. They’re very different end of ideological and political spectrum. And this would be another rejection of al-Qaeda.

Is there any possibility that al-Qaeda might try to force its way into somebody’s country, given the fact that there’s turmoil and chaos right now?

I think so. I think there’s a serious concern. There’re going to be opportunities, there’re going to be conflicts, and there’re going to be more ungoverned spaces. There are going to be opportunities for al-Qaeda to overgrow or take advantage of situations from a tactical perspective. But I think most important is the longer-term strategic field. And I think we need to remain vigilant in our counter-terrorism efforts, but also embrace this larger strategic vision.

There’s still a 25-million-dollar bounty on the head of Ayman al-Zawahiri, as it was on Osama bin Laden. Given the fact that bin Laden was dispatched so quickly by US forces, do you think there’ll be other players in the field who will be going after his successor?

That’s an interesting question. I think we’ve seen over the past couple of days the reaction in Pakistan about bin Laden’s death with the rest of those who helped US forces. I think it’s a very complicated question. We’re going to see how people in Pakistan and elsewhere are dealing with this sort of issues.

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