New boss

New boss

The appointment of Ayman al-Zawahiri as al-Qaeda’s chief has been described as a blow to the international jihadi movement. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri is said to be a cantankerous and abrasive person, not liked by even those who support him. The former surgeon is believed to be a divisive figure. Moreover, he is said to have little battlefield experience. As bin Laden’s deputy for many years, his promotion should have been a shoo-in. That it wasn’t – it took the al-Qaeda over six weeks to announce its new appointment – indicates that there was opposition to his becoming the new al-Qaeda chief. The need to fight off resistance, consolidate his leadership and impress his following could prompt Zawahiri to plan and execute a spectacular attack.

The US has announced that it will hunt down Zawahiri just as it did bin Laden. Counter-terrorism officials will be hoping that hostility to his leadership will sharpen in the coming weeks, triggering a rebellion in the al-Qaeda. However, this might all just be wishful thinking. Zawahiri has carried a US $25 million bounty on his head for several years but even that did not lure his rivals to provide the CIA with information of his whereabouts. Besides, despite all its internal bickering and the immense external pressure it has been under, the al-Qaeda has survived over a decade. There is little reason therefore for the organisation to collapse because of its crabby new leader. In fact, unlike bin Laden who was confined to his safe house for several years, Zawahiri has been mobile and active. His hands-on presence could infuse al-Qaeda with a breath of fresh air.

Eliminating Zawahiri is not going to end the al-Qaeda just as bin Laden’s death did not. Besides, destroying al-Qaeda will not end the international jihadi movement. Al-Qaeda is only a part of this movement, which the US seems unable to comprehend. To defeat the al-Qaeda and the international jihadi movement, the US must move beyond its obsession with military operations against ‘jihadis’ to address grievances that encourage thousands of young men to join its ranks. Following up its decade-long tailing of bin Laden with a manhunt for Zawahiri reveals that Washington is lacking in ideas and imagination.

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