Newsweek is reporting a power struggle within the senior ranks of Al Qaida, pitting the group's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri (and fellow members of his "Egyptian" faction), against a Libyan clique, led byAbu Yahya al-Libi.
Two "reliable" jihadist sources tell the magazine that the dispute centers on Zawahiri's aggressive efforts to take operational control of Al Qaida, and his personal obsession with toppling Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Al-Libi and his faction believe that Zawahiri's recent actions will provoke a counter-strike by Musharraf (and possibly, U.S. forces), jeopardizing Al Qaida's recently-established safe havens in the Waziristan tribal region.
According to Newsweek, Zawahiri personally orchestrated last week's retaliatory attacks in Waziristan, in response to the recent storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by Pakistani security forces. At least 150 soliders and civilians have died in attacks since the Red Mosque was raided in early July, providing more proof of a resurgent Al Qaida, with Zawahiri in operational command:
After years in which Zawahiri seemed constantly on the run, his alleged orchestration of last week's attacks would be further evidence that Qaeda and Taliban forces are newly empowered and have consolidated control of a safe haven along the Pakistani border. A new National Intelligence Estimate out of Washington last week also concludes that Al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan—and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11. The NIE—a periodic intel assessment that is considered the most authoritative issued by the U.S. government—concluded Al Qaeda has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack the United States. These include a sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal regions of North Waziristan and Bajaur, and an intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants.
But there are also some inconsistencies in this narrative, which the magazine either downplays--or ignores. First, the ideological "split" has not been serious enough to warrant the personal involvement of Osama bin Laden. According to Newsweek, the Al Qaida leader has appointed a pair of mediators to "resolve" the dispute, while he remains pre-occupied with strategic planning and "spiritual" leadership. While bin Laden's approach is rooted in Middle Eastern tradition, if the rift was genuinely serious, he could personally intervene and reassert control over the organization, despite reported health and security concerns.
Additionally, there was apparently no mention of a split in the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), or at least in the portions that were released to the public. We can only hope that intelligence community's sources are at least as good as Newsweek's. Assuming that our spooks have heard the same reports--from other sources--such information would have (presumably) made its way into the NIE, and most likely, into press reporting. The absence of such leaks suggest that intel analysts don't lend as much credence to reports of a power struggle within Al Qaida's ranks.
Moreover, rumors of a internal split don't really jibe with reports of a resurgent terror network. According to the NIE, Al Qaida now possesses an "intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants" with no mention of an ideological struggle. If there is an actual rift between Zawahiri and al-Libi, then the group's upper echelons are intact in name only, and the divide would, eventually, jeopardize Al Qaida's ability to carry out new attacks, including a new campaign against the American homeland.
Indeed, the Newsweek report acknowledges that the struggle between the Egyptian and Libyan factions has not prevented the terror group from re-establishing its operational base in Waziristan, and regenerate its command-and-control network. If that assessment is accurate, then it is hardly indicative of an organization in disarray.
One U.S. official interviewed by the magazine acknowledges that there are tensions between the two wings of Al Qaida, although the term he used--tensions--suggests that the rift is not that serious. On the other hand, another American expert describes the split as "the battle for Al Qaeda's strategic soul. There is a profound strategic debate over whether to focus on overturning the government in Pakistan ... because that puts them in control of a nuclear capacity."
But that analysis raises another, fundamental question. Given their long interest in weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaida leaders would certainly exploit an opportunity to topple Musharraf's government, and acquire his nuclear capability. So far, Al Qaida appears to lack that capability, despite continuing attacks in the tribal lands, and a reported plan to launch suicide attacks in greater Pakistan. However, eight suicide bombers (the force assigned to attack government targets in other locations) don't represent a serious coup attempt, unless they can penetrate Musharraf's security detail and kill him.
At this juncture, as Bill Roggio observes, Zawahiri appears to have the upper hand within Al Qaida, and the group's operatives appear to be following his operational strategy. That's why rumors of an internal split may be interesting, but they may also be exaggerated.