When Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in June 2011, it was clear that he faced a daunting task in rebuilding an organisation suffering from a severe depletion of its ranks as a result of the blows it received, particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.
It was also clear that al-Zawahiri needed to find a solution to the challenge posed by the Arab Spring revolutions. The strength of the demonstrations illustrated that the majority in the Arab street did not support al-Qaeda's policy of advocating change through violence, nor were they convinced of its justifications for attacking the West, as the West stood by the Arab peoples in their quest for greater political freedom.
And now it appears that al-Zawahiri needs to find a solution to another problem, one that most likely started years ago but has been exacerbated by the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011; specifically, a shortfall in donor funds.
Nine months after Bin Laden's death, not one retaliatory attack has been carried out, which may be a result of the organisation's inability to conduct operations or its unpreparedness to do so at this time. Another reason may be that the myriad of security services in Western and Arab countries are on high alert to prevent possible attacks from occurring.
Another factor delaying or hindering the conduct of attacks could be a shortfall in donor funds to al-Qaeda. This lack of funds may be affecting its ability to make the necessary preparations for large operations that require substantial financing, in addition to the cost of recruiting and training operatives.
Shortfall in donor funds not new
The shortfall in donor funding for al-Qaeda in Waziristan is, in fact, not new. Frequent reports of funding shortfalls have been circulating for years. Al-Zawahiri highlighted the issue explicitly in a June 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq.
Al-Zawahiri requested that al-Zarqawi transfer a large sum of money ($100,000) to the leadership of the organisation. In his letter, al-Zawahri refers to an interruption in al-Qaeda's funding following the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libi, a leader in the organisation, even though al-Zawahiri described the organisation's financial status as "good" in general, which means that some funds were still reaching al-Qaeda in Waziristan at the time.
It is not clear if donations to al-Qaeda, which come mostly from supporters in Gulf countries, declined further or increased in the years after this letter was written, but new information from Waziristan does not indicate that the organisation is in a better position militarily or financially.
An Afghani operative who fought alongside al-Qaeda said the organisation's presence in Waziristan has contracted significantly, their ranks thinning to no more than a few dozen individuals. The young Afghan, named Hafez Hanif, told Newsweek in an interview published January 2nd that he sought information about a group of al-Qaeda fighters that he had not heard from since the killing of Bin Laden and found out they were living in dire conditions with their ranks greatly depleted.
While Hanif said "money is a more significant problem [for al-Qaeda] than the thinning of its ranks", the fighter's uncle told the magazine his sources confirm that the organisation's donor funding, which used to be in the millions of dollars each year from Gulf donors, has dried up.
Donor funds go to other causes
It appears that donor funds now go to causes other than those of al-Qaeda's leadership, which has apparently become marginalised and isolated in its Waziristan hideout. Hanif's uncle said he thinks "Arab people now think the fight should be political at home and not terrorism aimed at the West", and that "the peaceful struggle on Arab streets has accomplished more than Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri ever have".
If the information provided by these Afghans is true, it would reinforce the widely held belief that the organisation is at risk of ceasing to be an effective force, as it was in Afghanistan in the years prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
This impression was reinforced during the Arab Spring demonstrations, and again following Bin Laden's death. Also, media reports confirmed al-Qaeda's loss of many of its leaders and members in air strikes and clashes with Pakistani forces.
Newsweek's report indicated that al-Qaeda, which once had hundreds of fighters in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, now has no more than a few dozen left in the area, probably including al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi. This paltry number confirms that al-Qaeda has been reduced to a marginal role. The absence of al-Qaeda fighters in the battles being waged by the Pakistani and Afghan branches of the Taliban against the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Western forces is another sign of its weakened position.
The fact that al-Qaeda is facing these problems in Waziristan does not mean the organisation is finished, and it could still carry out a suicide attack to avenge Bin Laden's killing. But even if al-Qaeda succeeds in carrying out a revenge attack, that would probably not signify a fundamental change in its status if the shortfall in fighters and funding continues, and if it remains marginalised amidst the mostly peaceful Arab Spring revolutions.