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Osama’s Leon Spinks
Is al-Qaeda Finished?

If al-Zawahirti is now in charge of al-Qaeda, the organization's days are numbered, and Zawahiri's homeless status may return sooner than he thinks.

If terrorism is ever to have a Hall of Flame with a Most Malevolent Perp list, it won’t necessarily be Osama bin laden who clocks in at the top but Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian Sancho Panza whose favorite experience is shopping for the Baddest Bloodbath and Beyond. Al-Zawahiri is a doctor by training, an opportunist by nature, a slaughterer by conviction. He, rather than bin Laden, is the catalyst of horror that became al-Qaeda, but for different reasons. Al-Zawahiri’s ultimate aim is a Taliban-like regime in his native Egypt. Osama’s ultimate aim has always been more fuzzy, Osama having no real clue about politics and ideology after the battle. He’s a war leader, a stalk of charisma you can float a few battle flags from, but not a thinker. Push him to think and elaborate about what he really wants politically and he comes off like an utter dunce, the way he once proposed to the Saudi government that he could liberate Kuwait from Saddam’s invasion force, or the way he has always lovingly and girlishly collected press clips about his exploits or as reference to his non-existent ideas (when a Saudi official visited him in the Sudan, Lawrence Wright wrote in The Looming Tower, he found him “surrounded by young Saudi dissidents who fetched newspaper clippings for him whenever he wanted to make a point”), or the way Peter Arnett made him look when he asked Osama what he was looking for: “We are confident, with the permission of God, praise and glory be to Him, that Muslims will be victorious in the Arabian Peninsula and that God’s religion, praise and glory be to him, will prevail in this peninsula,” and more like-winded claptrap. So when al-Zawahiri and Osama got together, “Each man filled a need in the other. Zawahiri wanted money and contacts, which bin Laden had in abundance. Bin Laden, an idealist given to causes, sought direction; Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it. They were not friends but allies. Each believed he could use the other, and each was pulled in a direction he never intended to go.”

Al-Zawahri made an appearance on al-Jazeera on Wednesday to denounce the elections that have been called in the Palestinian territories as an attempt to stop an emerging civil war there. It was in keeping with Zawahitri’s disdain for any form of democratic resolution: “Those who are trying to free Islamic land through elections that are based on secular constitutions ... will not free a grain of Palestinian sand, but will choke jihad,” he said. “Any path other than jihad will only lead us to loss and defeat.” For all those claims that Zawahiri is the “thinker” behind al-Qaeda, he’s also a one-tracked ideologue of the first order who retreads the same two or three talking points every single time he speaks or justifies an attack. Those words are virtually indistinct from the little tract he published in Pakistan in the 1990s to justify his totalitarian approach to all things. At the time he was denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for choosing to work with the government rather than against it. Of the brotherhood, he demanded that they renounce “constitutions and man-made laws, democracy, elections, and parliament,” and declare jihad against the regime. He can’t let go of the approach.

But there may be more significance to Zawahiri’s appearance on al-Jazeera than may appear at first. Where, exactly, has Osama been in all this? Some time back The Moderate Voice wondered if the al-Qaeda tea leaves were suggesting that Osama is no longer in charge, whether Zawahiri, had finally taken over the organization. The question is worth asking again, and answering as it was answered then. If that’s the case, and if Lawrence Wright got Osama and Zawahiri right, which he generally does, then this is a short-term disaster with potentially good long-term benefits.

The disaster: Zawahiri is all massacres all the time. Osama has his bloody side too of course, but he’s a late-comer to violence without borders, egged on by Zawahiri. Osama is arguably the readier of the two for deal-making (if that was ever in the cards). Zawahiri is a No Deal Ever kind of nut, as his little chat on al-Jazeera proves again.To him anything smelling of democratic allowances is a surrender. He doesn’t trust democracy. So if he’s in charge, that suggests a bloodier, but also less careful, al-Qaeda (example: the 1997 Luxor massacre in Egypt, which Zawahri orchestrated, and which backfired on his organization there, where the public was so horrified that he lost all possibility of public support. From that day on Zawahri was finished in Egypt, and there hasn’t been another instance of terrorism there).

The potential benefit: Zawahri doesn’t know how to run an organization, doesn’t have the charisma to rally the troops, and lets his rage get the better of him every time. He’s pulling a Leon Spinks on Osama’s late-and-ageing Muhammad act. He’s defeating the elder, climing to the top of the rankings, playing himself up as the big heavyweight. But if Zawahiri’s accession to the No. 1 spot means that Osama is either dead or dying, it also means a quicker decline for al-Qaeda’s fortunes, a loss of a center of gravity that Osama provided. Contrary to the notion that al-Qaeda is a multi-headed hydra, it depends on Osama’s gluey charisma to give it universal appeal, in the Islamic world anyway. That’s not to say that terrorism will die. It never has—not since the first Cave Man boulder brawl over that watering hole near the Lascaux caves. But it may mean a fizzling of the globalist reach of al-Qaeda, both as an idea and an effective terrorist force. Not a moment too soon. Remember, too, that Leon Spinks went from millionaire to homeless in a matter of years after winning his belt. And yet President Bush is perorating about expanding the military to fight his endless war. He has a new friend in Zawahiri, someone else to go down in flames with. Still, however, at our expense.

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