There’s nothing like finally getting the top job after a decade of faithfully playing second fiddle to a high-profile boss. But for al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, the dour Egyptian surgeon and longtime deputy to Osama bin Laden, succeeding his old leader comes with an unexpected challenge: His predecessor, it turns out, has gifted him a bit of a lemon. In recent years, al-Qaeda has become the Blockbuster Video of global jihad.
The organization and brand are in deep trouble, and Zawahiri is quite unlikely to become the leader who can turn things around.
Al-Qaeda is peddling an ideology that has lost much of its purchase in the Muslim world, and it hasn’t mounted a successful terrorist attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, transportation bombings in London. The terrorist network’s plots, for instance, to blow up seven American, British and Canadian planes over the Atlantic in 2006, to set off bombs in Manhattan in 2009, and to mount Mumbai-style attacks in Europe a year later all came to nothing. Most notably, it hasn’t carried out a successful attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Peter Bergen is the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and the editor of the AfPak Channel.