It was a good time for Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
With the Taliban taking over Kabul, their network may have found new refuge in the Afghan mountains. The 20 years of the September 11 attacks, moreover, have again reminded the world of its threat.
What Zawahiri did, however, was publish an 852-page book on the history of corruption in the Islamic world.
“A missed opportunity,” says political scientist Barak Mendelsohn, one of the great experts on al Qaeda. The new work is “pathetic and tedious,” he says, and so bad that it “numbs the reader’s mind”. The style is far-fetched, balled up. And to make matters worse, Zawahiri presents the book as just the first part of a more extensive work.
Perhaps the great lesson of the tome is that the leader of this organization — one of the symbols of international terrorism — is no longer able to connect with his followers.
Zawahiri is a radical veteran. The Egyptian spent a good part of his 70 years in militancy. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager and founded the Islamic Jihad terrorist group in 1979. He was arrested for planning an attack on then-Egyptian President Anuar Sadat. He joined his group with al Qaeda in the 1990s, projecting his name even further.
Such is its importance that, today, the United States offers a reward of US$ 25 million (R$ 134 million) on its head.
But Zawahiri does not share the charisma of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, who died in 2011. Nor does the appeal of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the Iraqi al Qaeda wing killed in 2006.
It was under the dysfunctional command of Zawahiri, incidentally, that in the last decade al Qaeda lost ground to the Islamic State, a terrorist organization that came to control parts of Syria and Iraq.
One of the explanations for the Egyptian’s difficulty in connecting with his radical base could be his poor health. The al Qaeda leader has been presumed dead several times. Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of his new book, in fact, was to serve as proof that Zawahiri is still alive, producing.
It may also be that he is cornered and does not have the technical conditions to produce a message with more impact. Even your most recent videos are of pretty low quality.
But the main explanation seems to be the mismatch between a generation of veterans leading young people who live in another time. “He doesn’t see that the world has changed,” says Mendelsohn.
Other terrorist organizations are investing in short messages circulated on social networks. Videos with scenes of explosions, dramatic soundtracks, in the language of video games.
The Islamic State, in particular, understood quite well the power of dynamic communication in networks. Zawahiri, however, still records long, monotonous speeches — and publishes catataus of hundreds of pages that do not generate a stir even among his most loyal followers.
Another problem is that al Qaeda’s message no longer moves militants as it used to. The group was built on the idea of attacking the United States, its great enemy, but that motto is disconnected from reality, says Mendelsohn.
Terrorist organizations have made other calculations. The 2001 attack was undoubtedly a symbolic victory. On the other hand, it caused the US government to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, dismember al Qaeda and kill bin Laden.
In this context, radical groups have strategically focused on domestic enemies. It is no coincidence that the Taliban, back in Kabul, has invested in a less aggressive message towards Washington.
Zawahiri’s inefficiency, however, does not mean that al Qaeda has ceased to be a threat. It may not pose the same danger as in the past, but the group still exists and can use this moment to reorganize in Afghanistan. Intelligence agencies already point out the movement of militants in the region.
Furthermore, focusing solely on Zawahiri’s leadership can be misleading, according to Alia Brahimi of the Atlantic Council. She specializes in the ideology of terrorism. “Zawahiri is not al Qaeda’s beating heart,” he says. The organization is still based on the 9/11 myth and on the operations of its regional franchises, which operate quite autonomously.
As a result, the group is not so vulnerable to its leader’s fragility and mismatch.
Zawahiri did not proclaim himself caliph or claim to be the leader of all Muslims in the world. He is thus different from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former head of the Islamic State, who died in 2019. His luck or setback in this way may have little effect on the organization’s daily operations.
“We should be concerned about al Qaeda, yes, but not disproportionately to their threat,” says Mendelsohn. “The risk of an attack will continue to exist for a long time. The question is what kind of attack. It shouldn’t be on the 9/11 scale. But we will remain vigilant.”