The news that the al-Qaeda governing shura (council) has chosen Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, as his successor, is hardly that surprising. Despite chatter that a younger figure such as Egyptian former special forces officer Saif al-Adel might take over (that was one story, possibly floated by a cabal of AQ leaders trying to see if there was any wider constituency for change), the shura went for the conservative, continuity candidate. After all, al-Zawahiri has been a or the key figure in shaping AQ’s strategy. He is also intelligent and has religious gravitas. However, he is also distinctly uncharismatic, uncompromising, seems to regard anyone who disagrees with him as a fool or an apostate and perhaps most importantly has nothing new to offer. We may see a short-term flurry of rhetoric and activity as he seeks to affirm his authority, but I don’t see him being able to halt or reverse AQ’s long-term decline.
Of course the decline of AQ does not mean the demise of wider, Islamically-motivated terrorism. I wonder if the news will have any impact on the North Caucasus, especially given that al-Zawahiri did travel there briefly in 1996-7 (and was arrested and then released by the FSB). In its statement on al-Zawahiri’s elevation, the shura mentioned Chechnya in part of a lengthy list of others:
“We also assure our mujahideen brothers, the companions on the path of patience, challenge and confrontation with the Crusader campaign in Iraq of the Caliphate and knowledge; in Somalia of immigration and Shariah; in the Peninsula of revelation, wisdom and faith; in the Maghreb of fighting, support and steadfastness; in Chechnya of patience and insistence, that we are continuing in the covenant and in the methodology with a strong structure, aligned ranks, united word, familiar hearts and pure banner, fighting one enemy, even if they take different shapes and assume different names, without weakness, hesitation or surrender”
Behind the indigestible text, the Chechens (and presumably by extension other North Caucasian insurgents) are being counselled to ‘patience and insistence’, implying an acknowledgement that there will be no quick victories, only a slow erosion of the enemy. Not the greatest prospect, but one which probably encapsulates where the North Caucasus fits within AQ’s geography of jihad.
After all, where once the region was seen as a prospective haven and source of recruits, increasingly it is marginal, not least to the failure of AQ to make itself appear relevant to the local jamaats. According to Alexander Litvinenko, al-Zawahiri was actually an FSB agent, given training in his six months ‘in prison.’ Although it was surprising that he was released, I frankly doubt that he is or was an agent, and suspect it is more likely either that money changed hands or, more likely, that the FSB felt boosting AQ’s engagement in Chechnya was a Good Thing. After all, this was the time in which the Chechen independence movement was being ripped apart, between President Aslan Maskhadov’s nationalists and the AQ-backed jihadists. The latter were undermining both Maskhadov’s authority and his international legitimacy, playing into the hands of the Russians who were eager to characterise all the Chechens as lunatic jihadists. In this respect, al-Zawahiri may have been seen in much the same light as Lenin by the Germans in 1917: no friend, but a usefully-destabilising presence to allow into your enemy’s camp.
Nonetheless, while then AQ was able to gain key allies such as Shamil Basayev, as well as plant their man Khattab as a powerful warlord in Chechnya, efforts in the past half-decade have come to little. As the Chechen rebel movement faces ferocious pressure from without, demoralisation, despair and division from within, the other North Caucasus jamaats largely associate AQ with divisiveness and the internecine conflicts which ‘lost’ Chechnya. Meanwhile, those fighters still associated with AQ in the region have been dwindling, whittled away by the security forces (perhaps the last really significant one, Saif Islam, was killed in 2010). Although there was some excitable commentary following the news that the AQ magazine Inspire was being translated into Russian, in fact references to Chechnya have been strikingly lacking in recent statements by al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden before his death. Nor, despite some claims to the contrary, has there been any evidence of practical or even much moral support being given by AQ to embattled Chechen leader Doku Umarov.
As Joas Wagemakers writing on the excellent Jihadica blog has shown, if anything some within the jihadist movement (specifically Jordanian radical ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and his Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad website) have looked to the North Caucasus militants for tactical inspiration. However, it is unlikely that these ideas will have much traction with his former pupil, al-Zawahiri. Instead, it is rather more likely that AQ will continue largely to ignore the North Caucasus, except to praise and claim implicit credit for any new terrorist atrocities.