The new, aging face of al Qaeda

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s longtime No. 2, has been chosen as the new leader of the global terrorist organization, according to postings on Jihadist websites. Zawahiri, a former doctor from Egypt, has been hiding from U.S. special services for nearly a decade. He will turn 60 on June 19.

Islamists are not known to make lavish presents to their superiors, and birthdays are less of an occasion in the Middle East than in the West. Muslims honor Allah, not his servants. It was a coincidence that Zawahiri’s elevation came only a few days before his birthday. But still, there is something symbolic in the move.

A leader from the old guard

It would be even more symbolic if the U.S. were able to dispatch the new al Qaeda leader this year, better still before the 10-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States. It is believed that Zawahiri was as deeply involved in the operation as his boss Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan on May 2.

The U.S. has offered $25 million for information leading up to the capture or killing of Zawahiri. The price may go up following his promotion. The reward for bin Laden was $50 million, but it is unclear if anyone has received any part of that sum.

Zawahiri’s appointment is good news for counterterrorism officials, as it is always easier to fight an enemy you know. Zawahiri’s name was mentioned in the media as a possible replacement for bin Laden immediately upon news of his death.

However, one Western political analyst who presumably has close ties with extremists said there is a rift between al Qaeda’s old and young members. He said the al Qaeda youth had put forward Egyptian Saif al-Adel as an interim leader of the organization but to no avail.

Fading symbol of jihad

It appears there was never any question among the jihadists that the new leader of al Qaeda should be Zawahiri, who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. The decision of the mysterious “general command” of al Qaeda to elevate Zawahiri was met with acceptance on extremist websites. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said about Zawahiri: “Yes, this man can be the organization’s leader.” Western political analysts showed much more interest in the news.

Zawahiri will be a nominal leader because most experts say that al Qaeda is not a vertically structured organization with centralized leadership. Its regional affiliates in North Africa, the Caucasus, the Arabian Peninsula and other regions have a common ideology but operate independently. Moreover, other terrorist groups often falsely claim to be al Qaeda affiliates.

Al Qaeda, the symbol of radical jihad, has been overshadowed by popular unrest in Arab countries. Zawahiri is the aging face of a fading organization, which may be good for the organization’s enemies. Al Qaeda’s time is almost up, and it may now be easier to deal with it, although new enemies may soon take its place.

Osama bin Laden, who ruled his organization via infrequent messages from his hiding place in Pakistan, could not have been remained the leader for years. But while he and his closest associates hid from U.S. forces, a tidal wave of revolutions was brewing in the Middle East.

The young fruit vendor who sparked the revolution in Tunisia did not blow himself up in a crown of unsuspecting people, like an al-Qaeda terrorist, but set fire to himself in protest after his stand was confiscated. And the impact of his act was much greater than any terrorist attack.

Zawahiri will be focused on his survival

A U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity that Zawahiri will have to think more of his own survival than plotting terrorist attacks.

However, the new leader of al Qaeda obviously had enough time to ponder the future of his religion and country, hoping to use the wave of popular unrest to reinforce his organization’s popularity.

He said in his 28-minute video address posted on the Internet last week that it is not individuals but whole nations that have risen against America. Zawahiri, the mastermind behind many of al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, called on Arabs to carry on the revolutions against the despotic regimes forced on them by the West.

He spoke about Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and Morocco, adding that not an inch of the Palestinian land must be left to the U.S. henchman, Israel.

In the past, al Qaeda leaders hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan formulated global objectives and sought to achieve them through terrorist attacks. But Zawahiri’s attempt to usurp the Arab revolts and cast himself in the role of coordinator will fail. This aging, gun-toting militant can’t keep up with the young revolutionaries whose weapons are anti-government slogans and a bunch of jasmine flowers.

The Arab revolts were not inspired by al Qaeda, which has proved unable even to find itself a more compelling leader than Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al Qaeda has lost its ability to captivate, praise be to Allah.

Yelena Suponina is a political commentator for The Moscow News and Middle East expert.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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