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Al-Zawahiri not as strong a communicator as Bin Laden – New America Foundation’s Steve Coll | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview, the President of the New America Foundation think-tank Steve Coll spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the recent killing of former Al Qaeda chief, Osama Bin Laden, and who will most likely succeed him as the next leader of Al Qaeda. Coll is a journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author who previously worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and served as managing editor of The Washington Post. He is the author of “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian family in the American century.”

The following is the full text of the interview.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are the author of the book “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian family in the American century”, which spans three generations of the Bin Laden family. How long did it take you to research and write this book?

[Coll] It took about four years from start to finish. Of course, I had been traveling on and off to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf since 1990. As a reporter for the Washington Post, I wrote my first story about Osama Bin Laden in 1993. So the book came out of a longer period of travel and research than just the four years.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, who will succeed Bin Laden as Al Qaeda’s next leader? Does al-Zawahiri have the requisite chairmsa, or is Abu Yahya al-Libia a safer bet?

[Coll] I may be wrong, but I continue to assume that Al-Zawahiri will be the next leader, at least for a time. He is the formal deputy. He would seem likely to want the leadership role. To tell him that he could not have it would require a Shura meeting of top, influential personalities. That would be a very difficult Shura meeting to organize safely in the current environment. Al-Libia is certainly a contender but for him to leap over al-Zawahiri would require al-Zawahiri to agree and that just seems doubtful to me. We’ll see.

As for al-Zawahiri’s charisma, no, he is not as strong a communicator as Bin Laden, there is a disputatious nature about him, and he has a record of alienating his colleagues. He might be able to keep Al Qaeda moving for a while but I doubt he could raise money as effectively as Bin Laden or solve its fundamental problems of political unpopularity and irrelevance.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Whoever the next Al Qaeda leader is, he will almost certainly not enjoy the same wealth and contacts as Bin Laden; how will Al Qaeda fill this gap?

[Coll] Yes, the key to Al Qaeda remains fundraising, given that it is under pressure in so many ways. It’s harder to cross borders; it’s harder to avoid detection and arrest or death, than it was ten years ago. To keep moving the organization needs money. This seems to explain its entry into kidnapping. Ransoms from kidnapping may be Al Qaeda’s most important source of revenue at the moment. In the long run, however, to avoid becoming just another kidnapping operation such as you see in the Niger Delta or in Somalia, the group would have to reclaim some kind of political or religious legitimacy and tap charitable contributions from the wealthier Gulf States, as it managed to do during the 1990s.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Bin Laden’s death came as such a surprise, and he was killed with practically no resistance, was this end always expected? Will the new Al Qaeda leader be more cautious?

[Coll] It was interesting that Bin Laden had no real bodyguard with him. We can see now that he and his hosts either felt they could not afford an armed bodyguard of any size because it would make them too easy to find – or it was because Pakistani intelligence had signalled that they would provide the security Bin Laden needed. According to one of Bin Laden’s old bodyguards, Bin Laden had pledged to die fighting. But of course it is much easier to say that in advance than to do it in the moment when you face a choice. He did not fight but he did not conspicuously surrender, so he was killed.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Ghost Wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden” which details the CIA’s involvement in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in the years prior to the September 11 attacks. How long did it take you to write and research?

[Coll] The book itself took about two years from start to finish. But again, I had been traveling and reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for many years before that, and had built up files of research and many contacts in those countries. So I had a head start.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think Al Qaeda, as an organization, is completely finished, or will a new leadership be able to pick up the pieces?

[Coll] I’m sure it will carry on in some form. Al Qaeda is many things at once – an organization with headquarters and leaders in Pakistan and in the Afghan-Pakistan region; a network of like-minded groups and franchises, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; a movement in which individuals are sometimes inspired to act on Al Qaeda’s behalf without ever meeting a leader or trainer; and it’s also a kind of brand, like Nike or Apple, that helps its users raise money and intimidate enemies. The franchises, in particular, seem likely to continue their current level of activity, which is generally not high but does produce dangerous plots occasionally.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe the Pakistanis, or the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency [ISI] knew Bin Laden’s whereabouts, or were they as surprised as the rest of the world?

[Coll] The circumstantial evidence raises a lot of questions – he was in a house in a military town, near the Pakistan Military Academy, in a society where everyone knows who their neighbours are. It would be surprising if some sections of the Pakistani government did not know he was there, but we should follow the evidence.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think about the contradictory information that was issued by Washington about the details surrounding Bin Laden’s death? Do you think there is still more information to come to light?

[Coll] The Obama Administration confused the public at first by putting out some early reports about what had happened during the raid that later had to be corrected. The first reports of a battle almost always turn out to be wrong. The administration should have been more cautious about putting out those kinds of details. Now they say they have an enormous amount of data that they’ve collected from the house. No doubt we will learn more about what they found later.