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Al-Zawahiri Takes Lead of al-Qaida, Vowing ‘Blood for Blood’ for Bin Laden Death

June 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown discusses al-Qaida's shift in leadership to Ayman al-Zawahri with The Boston Globe's Juliette Kayyem and Georgetown University's Daniel Byman.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more, we go to Juliette Kayyem, now a national security columnist for The Boston Globe and a former assistant secretary of homeland security, and Daniel Byman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and author of a new book on Israeli counterterrorism.

Juliette Kayyem, I will start with you.

Fill in the portrait a bit of Ayman al-Zawahri. What is important to know about his biography and experience?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary: Well, I think the biography begins with how — who he was when he was born. He comes from an elite family with long ties to Egyptian leadership, not unlike bin Laden was — bin Laden’s family was with the Saudis.

So, he is of a certain ilk and elite that doesn’t represent sort of the young al-Qaida movement right now. Nonetheless, he has spent his entire life committed to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and ultimately getting together with bin Laden. Our interest in him is — begins with the Africa Embassy bombings going on to the USS Cole.

He’s been — as we know and as you reported, he’s been in hiding. And I think the most important thing right now is just simply the timing of this announcement. It is six weeks later. And there is a debate about whether that represented a movement to get rid of him, and not have an Egyptian lead al-Qaida, and or if it was just the nature that, here is a group that has clearly been compromised, we — they don’t know what we know, and it just took them a long time to essentially elevate bin Laden’s heir apparent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, Daniel Byman, what about that? There has been that speculation. What — was this a power struggle during this time or just normal process?

DANIEL BYMAN, Georgetown University: We don’t really know.

This is an organization that has often sought internal consultation and a degree of unity. And since the members are being hunted not only by Pakistanis, but especially with the drone program, having that consultation is much more difficult.

But Zawahri is a divisive figure. He’s someone who doesn’t have the loyalty that bin Laden inspired, does not have bin Laden’s charisma. So there may be individuals within the organization. And certainly there are individuals within the broader movement that question whether he is the one to take bin Laden’s place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Juliette, do we know — when we say he was chosen as leader, do we know what that means, who chooses, and what is the process?


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not that they take a vote? How do — or do they? How does it work?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It’s the enigma of the day. People have been — people in government and abroad have been somewhat opaque.

I find it hard to believe that there was a physical meeting, although al-Qaida’s statement about Zawahri does talk about consultation. So they may be wanting to portray the fact that there’s at least some members who got together. More likely, this was done through proxies and couriers who were representing the leadership of al-Qaida.

It is not a vote for one or against another. It’s simply just an elevation or an affirmation that Zawahri would take command.

And I think one of the most important things is, imagine if al-Qaida had not picked Zawahri. That, I think, would be the story. And I think al-Qaida, the leadership was clearly intending on saying, you know, we’re still driving this boat, because if they had sort of undermined what bin Laden wanted, his number two not getting elevated, it would have appeared to the outside world, the outside world that they are trying to appeal to, that they were really in disarray.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Daniel Byman, this notion we heard from the State Department spokeswoman that it — that it barely matters — that was her word — as to who is in charge of al-Qaida, parse that for us a bit. Could that be true, and is it a question of the leadership or about the strength of the organization? How do we think about it now?

DANIEL BYMAN: To me, the most charitable way to take that statement is that, from a U.S. point of view, we’re going to fight al-Qaida and associated movements regardless of who is in charge.

But, clearly, it makes a tremendous difference who is in charge. Zawahri has perhaps a — is less able than bin Laden to raise money. His ability to recruit in the same way is also questionable and also where he’s going to put the movement. Is he going to emphasize working with affiliates like those in Yemen, or is he going to emphasize attacks in the West?

All these are things that leaders have tremendous influence over, so it does matter who leads al-Qaida.

JEFFREY BROWN: Juliette Kayyem, do you agree? You think it matters a lot, and in what way?


I understand why the State Department said that, because they clearly want this — you know, part of the ideological fight with al-Qaida between the U.S. and terrorist organizations is to make them seem irrelevant to us.

But it does matter. And I think it matters in terms of the tactics. What al-Qaida is facing now is essentially al-Qaida central, essentially an unsuccessful terrorist attack since 2007 in Britain.

So, the question for Zawahri is, do I make a big, bold statement in the far lands, right, sort of in the West, or do I piggyback off the Arab spring and what we now call the Arab summer and the unrest in Libya, Yemen and Syria, and try to do sort of a near fight?

And that is going to be a tactical decision. Al-Qaida has been on the sidelines of the Arab spring. The summer is looking like a lot of unrest and that is where al-Qaida fits in well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, Daniel Byman, the Arab spring, many people — a lot of commentary that that even suggested a kind of irrelevance for al-Qaida in the Arab world, or at least partial irrelevance.

DANIEL BYMAN: The Arab spring is mixed for al-Qaida.

The bad news for them is that it gives a completely different message, that peaceful demonstrations can overthrow tyrannical regimes. Al-Qaida, for years, has pushed the idea that force and only force is the answer.

On the other hand, though, the security services of these regimes were tremendously effective against groups like Zawahri’s in Egypt. And you’re going to have an easing of pressure. And, in fact, even the regimes that are surviving, they are going to focus primarily on peaceful dissenters, rather than on terrorist groups.

So, there will be more freedom of operation. And should the Arab spring, the Arab summer turn sour, should repression occur, should Islamists in particular be frozen out of power, you could see a radicalizing effect that, over time, increases support for violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the possibility that Juliette Kayyem just raised, the possibility or even expectation that al-Qaida might do something kind of large now to make a statement about new leadership and relevance?

DANIEL BYMAN: Al-Qaida certainly wants to do something right now simply to show it’s in the game, in part to get revenge for bin Laden and in part to show its supporters that it’s relevant.

The real question is can it do something large? It has wanted to do something large for some time. So, whether they can pull something off the shelf right now to me is a very open question.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Juliette Kayyem, the stance for the U.S. at this point? Does it change in any way with the new leadership?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Probably not, at least in terms of counterterrorism efforts. There is no suspicion that this elevates any sort of threat for us here in the homeland.

This — he already has the $25 million bounty on his head. Presumably, once bin Laden was killed, he was next in line for our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. There is some speculation that he was on Hillary Clinton’s list when she met with Pakistani leaders about sort of our concerns of where he is and could he possibly be in Pakistan, like bin Laden.

So, their — the focus was already there. This was sort of a fait accompli. It took a long time, for reasons we discussed. And now we sort of have to determine what are going to be his tactics, both short-term and long-term, to make himself relevant and a good leader and then, of course, the movement relevant, at a time which — Dan said, you know, at a time when the Arab world has essentially moved on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Juliette Kayyem, Daniel Byman, thank you both very much.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thank you.