- William McCants: The al-Qaeda Zawahiri inherits
- Leah Farrall: Al-Qaeda’s delayed announcement
- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Zawahiri’s ascension won’t change al-Qaeda’s strategy
- J.M. Berger: Zawahiri’s American court jester
Osama bin Laden saw the American economy as his enemy's critical vulnerability, and helped to shepherd al-Qaeda's strategy for attacking it through several distinct phases. After initially using a catastrophic strike (the 9/11 attacks) to deal severe economic damage to the U.S., al-Qaeda would later concentrate on embroiling America in draining wars abroad and attacking the world oil supply. While catastrophic strikes are still part of its repertoire, in its current stage of fighting America the group has increasingly concentrated on smaller and more frequent attacks, something that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's online magazine Inspire called "the strategy of a thousand cuts" in November 2010. This basic framework is unlikely to change under Ayman al-Zawahiri's leadership, at least in the near term.
The reason al-Qaeda moved toward smaller, more frequent attacks is related to the near-collapse of the U.S. economy in September 2008. To put it simply, this event made America seem mortal, and al-Qaeda realized that it could drive up the U.S.'s security costs even through "failed" plots. For example, Inspire described an October 2010 plot involving PETN-based bombs hidden in printer cartridges as a success because it would create "the spread of fear that would cause the West to invest billions of dollars in new security procedures" -- this despite the fact that these bombs didn't destroy the planes on which they were placed.
This trend toward smaller and more frequent attacks focused on driving up the West's costs will likely continue. A 100-minute video released earlier this month-featuring such figures as Adam Gadahn, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and significantly, Zawahiri himself-encouraged jihadis with no al-Qaeda affiliation to strike at targets of opportunity. The video praised "lone wolves" who struck when the opportunity arose, such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's killer Mohammed Bouyeri, and fundamentalist Rabbi Meir Kahane's assassin El-Sayyid Nosair.
Zawahiri even recognized the importance of striking the American economy, as when he stated in an October 2002 recording, "We will also aim to continue, by permission of Allah, the destruction of the American economy."
Moreover, smaller-scale attacks allow al-Qaeda to lay low while its central leadership regroups. Al-Qaeda did the same thing after losing its safe haven in Afghanistan in late 2001; affiliates and more localized jihadi groups stepped to the fore while the central leadership established itself in Pakistan. Examples include the two gunmen linked to al-Qaeda who opened fire on U.S. Marines on the island of Failaka off Kuwait's coast in October 2002, bomb plots executed the same month by Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyya against tourist targets on Indonesia's Bali island, and Chechen terrorists seizing a Moscow theater packed with 850 people. The fact that affiliates were taking the lead in operations caused some analysts to mistakenly believe that al-Qaeda's central leadership had become marginalized. This false belief assisted al-Qaeda's recovery then, and Zawahiri and his deputies certainly hope the West will make a similar mistake this time around. The organization could benefit from having less pressure on its leaders, especially because they no doubt fear the intelligence that the U.S. was able to glean from the Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden.
Analysts have noted that Zawahiri faces two potential pitfalls with respect to his ability to raise funds from al-Qaeda's traditional donors: the fact that he isn't as charismatic as bin Laden, and that he is Egyptian rather than Saudi (many traditional al Qaeda donors hail from Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf). If he does experience increasing financial pressures, this could prompt a shift in al-Qaeda's strategy, perhaps causing it to try to carry out another catastrophic strike to demonstrate its continuing capability and relevance. There are pitfalls involved in this approach, however, as investing greatly in a single failed attack could bolster the perception that al-Qaeda has become impotent.
Some analysts have also questioned how well Zawahiri will relate to a younger generation of jihadis, but unless his authoritarian management style is prohibitive, he can likely address this perceived weakness by making sure more charismatic figures like al-Libi are prominent in al-Qaeda's propaganda efforts.
Zawahiri's ascension is unlikely to shift al-Qaeda's strategy in the short term. But in the longer term, his failings as a leader might push the group in a new direction-one that could be particularly dangerous to the West, or perhaps to al-Qaeda itself.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of the forthcoming book Bin Laden's Legacy (Wiley, 2011).