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The Washington Post reports that al-Qaeda's executive officer spends his time tapping out e-mail screeds to current and former associates and using the Internet to broadcast his interpretations of Islam and global politics to the Ummah, exhorting them to remain true to the Islamist cause and scolding them when they step out of line. In fact, the description of Ayman al-Zawahiri by Craig Whitlock sounds uncomfortably familiar to bloggers:
In January 2003, one of the two most wanted men in the world couldn't contain his frustration. From a hiding place probably somewhere in South Asia, he tapped out two lengthy e-mails to a fellow Egyptian who'd been criticizing him in public.
"I beg you, don't stop the Muslim souls who trust your opinions from joining the jihad against the Americans," wrote Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al-Qaeda. He fired off the message even though it risked exposing him.
"Let's put it this way: Tensions had been building up between us for a long time," explained the e-mail's recipient, Montasser el-Zayat, a Cairo lawyer who shared a prison cell with Zawahiri in the 1980s and provided this account. "He always thinks he is right, even if he is alone."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zawahiri has broadcast his views to the world relentlessly. Despite a $25 million price on his head, he has published memoirs, given interviews and recorded a dozen speeches that find their way to the Internet and television. Video of a speech was posted Thursday on a Web site.
Zawahiri's visibility, eclipsing Osama bin Laden's, reminds al-Qaeda's enemies that the network is capable of more attacks. But a closer look at his speeches and writings, and interviews with several longtime associates in radical Islamic circles, suggests another motive: fear of losing his ideological grip over a revolutionary movement he has nurtured for 40 years.
The success of the Sept. 11 hijackings temporarily united al-Qaeda's feuding factions under the leadership of bin Laden and Zawahiri. But now long-standing ideological and tactical disputes have resurfaced, according to analysts and former Zawahiri associates.
The pattern reveals that Zawahiri lives in fear -- fear of losing control of his network, fear of having his organization stray from the strict ideological lines he has set out. Zawahiri has indeed lost operational control over the al-Qaeda of September 10, 2001; in many ways, that network no longer exists, having been damaged by the sustained US offensive on their finances and leadership and dissipated by the physical isolation of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri himself.
The main organization has not had a successful major operation since Bali. The Madrid bombings in 2003 turned out to be a franchise operation, as did the London Tube bombings in 2005. Even the Bali bombings in 2002 and again last year seem to be closer to the franchise model. The ejection of the Taliban and AQ from Afghanistan has apparently shut down AQ's ability to coordinate, and the momentum shifted to the distributed network of cells and smaller organizations.
The most successful of these is Zarqawi's Iraq network, but that has presented Zawahiri with a unique problem; Zarqawi has the most credibility within the AQ network due to his continual attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. Zawahiri understands that the physical and operational isolation that has descended on him and bin Laden could render them irrelevant to the struggle. This drives Zawahiri to broadcast his missives on a regular basis; without any operational control or capability, the only way he can remain relevant is to regularly produce his rantings and to proclaim brotherhood with commanders in the field like Zarqawi.
Zawahiri also tries to maintain control through public scolding of those who deviate from his narrow vision. Besides the example provided above, Zawahiri took the time to publicly criticize what is considered the grandfather of Islamist organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood. They took part in the Egyptian presidential election, which Zawahiri considered an apostasy, and publicly told them so. When Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority, Zawahiri warned them explicitly against working inside of the democratic system and encouraged them to impose sharia instead. It's a measure of Zawahiri's relevance that both organizations largely ignored his advice and publicly distanced themselves from his offered alliance.
Early in the life of this blog, I wrote that the key to winning the war on terror would be to isolate Islamists from their money and their leadership, and that radicals without financing gradually decline to rock-throwers -- and that can be controlled through simple police work. In Zawahiri's case, it looks like we've reduced him to an extremist blogger.Sphere It View blog reactions
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