Al Qaeda is struggling for relevance. That is the general interpretation of the terror network’s decision to appoint Ayman al Zawahiri as its new leader. Zawahiri was number two to Osama bin Laden and so his appointment after his boss’s death seems a natural progression.
However, business as usual is exactly what al Qaeda did not need if it wanted to remain the head of violent militant Islamicism. Over the past few years al Qaeda has lost much of its support among Arab Muslims, its original base. It has been unable to give much of a boost to regional terror groups in Iraq and Saudi Arabia that swore allegiance to bin Laden. The US has also confined al Qaeda, but it has been the jasmine revolutions that have done the most damage in terms of making the organisation irrelevant.
Zawahiri is a symbol of how much al Qaeda has been sidelined. However, this does not mean the end of Islamicist terror. What it does confirm is that terror is today much less of an Arab Muslim issue as it is an Afghan-Pakistani issue. Zawahiri and the original Arab leaders of al Qaeda live probably in Pakistan. And the closest allies of al Qaeda, most notably the more violent elements of the Taliban, live in the same area. Only two other facets of jihadi terrorism are not Af-Pak centred. First, the remaining al Qaeda affiliates, notably in North Africa, Yemen and Somalia. These may develop potency in future, especially if places like Yemen fall into further chaos. The other are homegrown, isolated terrorist cells among Muslim minorities in the West, Russia and India. Many of these, however, receive inspiration and training from within the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s northwest frontier is the new epicentre of Islamicist terror. That it is the likely home of Zawahiri is only part of the reason for this. Pakistan has for decades supported terrorist groups to further political interests against India and now, Afghanistan. The arrival of al Qaeda has meant these groups increasingly became motivated by a larger pan-Islamicist ideology. They do not see allegiance to Pakistan as necessary and, increasingly, sees the State as one of the enemies of jihad. Bin Laden’s death’s main accomplishment was to remove what was a symbolic detraction from what has been the main terrorist issue of the world for at least the past five or six years: the problem of Pakistan.