“I’m not sure it’s a position anybody should aspire to, under the circumstances,” Gates said.
The conventional wisdom, however, is that it’s a position that the ambitious Zawahiri has long coveted.
“He has been sort of a climber, not only within Al Qaeda but in the larger jihadist movement,” says Brian Fishman, terrorism research fellow at the New American Foundation. “He’s attached himself to a rising star within the organization – bin Laden – and that’s how he’s seen, as somebody who isn’t always piously committed, but brings with him a sense of personal aggrandizement.”
That kind of mercenary approach, however, can have practical advantages, Mr. Fishman says. In the internal debate about whether Al Qaeda should maintain a strict ideological litmus test for members, or “get as many people into the tent as possible,” Zawahiri is a member of the latter camp, Fishman says, which could translate into more Al Qaeda followers.
“He’s still very ideologically rigid – I don’t want to give the impression that he’s some out-of-the-box thinker,” Fishman says, “but he’s always been most concerned about creating political effect on the ground.”
Yet Zawahiri’s desire to create these political effects could also cause a rift with the Taliban, analysts say. The interim commander of Al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel – who, like Zawahiri, is Egyptian – was viewed as having close ties to the Afghan Taliban. Zawahiri, on the other hand, has been interested in having Al Qaeda “step to the forefront and seize political power,” Fishman says, and this could involve bypassing the Taliban.
One quality that has made Al Qaeda particularly resilient in the past, however, has been its willingness to cede political authority to the groups on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan “that have a much more organic social base,” Fishman says.