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Zawahiri Is Al Qaeda's New CEO -- Will Number Two Try Harder?

Ayman al-Zawahiri -- al Qaeda’s long-time number two -- is now officially number one. What’s that mean for us? Not much, actually.

As soon as Seal Team Six reported in, terrorism experts started predicting that Al Qaeda would take revenge. Now they’re saying that Zawahiri will stage a big attack to make his bones as the new big guy. That may be true, but it hardly represents a big change for the U.S., practically speaking. 

Ever since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been trying to quarterback global terrorism efforts, or at least inspire others to strike at the United States. There have been many plots aimed at the United States post-9/11, and most of them have been foiled. So, really, what is the difference?

It’s also unlikely that Al Qaeda will become something different. Zawahiri comes out of the same intellectual tradition as Bin Laden. As a report from the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore noted, it’s “almost undeniable” that the extremist philosophy of Sayyi Qutb “will continue as a cornerstone of Al Qaeda’s ideology.” That means we shouldn’t expect Al Qaeda to fade away quietly or morph into something else. “A key aspect of both Sayyid Qutb and Al Qaeda’s philosophies is their similar outlook concerning jihad,” the report finds, “Both Qutb and Usama Bin Laden believed that jihad is a long-term struggle, and therefore did not expect an immediate conclusion to it.”

Don’t look for a change in short-term strategy, either. Before his death, Bin Laden looked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula as an operational base to work from (at least three plots aimed at the U.S. had links to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). With the growing chaos there and Islamist extremist seizing territory from Al Qaeda central, it must still look like the movement’s best bet. There are no better options right now. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has not shown great success — in Libya least of all, although there have been some signs of Al Qaeda activities. There also appear to be active efforts by the locals to root them out.

Meanwhile, don’t look for Zawahiri to abandon Pakistan. There are still plenty of friends in the neighborhood. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has become more pro-Al Qaeda. There are other groups as well, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Jhangwi.

So don’t expect anything different from the new terrorist boss. He’s essentially working from the same playbook as the old terrorist boss.

James Jay Carafano is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studiesand Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.