Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan. The next month, an online statement announced that Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s longtime No. 2, was taking command of the international terrorist organization.
Independent specialists largely agree that Mr. Zawahri is not an inspiring model for young militants, noting his lack of combat experience, his long history of ideological squabbles and his abrasive manner and pedantic speeches.
He inherited a central Qaeda organization that is under intense pressure, even as its ideology has spread and spawned dangerous affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and elsewhere. In fact, the affiliates have gained in stature at the expense of the core Al Qaeda leadership of perhaps a dozen operatives, many of whom served for years as Bin Laden’s closest confidants. Intelligence experts say Bin Laden’s death accelerated this trend.
Perhaps most significantly, the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring have left Al Qaeda’s leader as a bystander to history. The ouster of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, a central goal of Mr. Zawahri’s career, was carried out without him and by methods he had long denounced.
Taking a Deadly New Role in Syria’s Conflict
The wave of Arab unrest reached Syria in March 2011, when an uprising that began as a peaceful protest movement slowly turned into an armed battle in response to overwhelming lethal force used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
But in February 2012, American counterterrorism officials said that a few hundred militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq had moved into neighboring Syria to exploit the political turmoil, as the battle evolved into a sectarian war between a Sunni-dominated opposition and government and security forces dominated by the Alawite sect.
By the summer of 2012, it was clear that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists were doing their best to hijack Syria’s revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.
Evidence was mounting that Syria had become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands in mid-July 2012, Bab al-Hawa, quickly became a jihadist congregating point.
The presence of jihadists in Syria accelerated in late July in part because of a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s long border in Iraq. Al Qaeda, through an audio statement, made an undisguised bid to link its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both as sectarian conflicts — Sunnis versus Shiites.