“The truth is, he doesn’t have the power to strike back,” Azzam said. “Sept. 11 was carried out by highly motivated people in many different places. Zawahiri can’t pull together something like that.”
U.S. officials said they have seen no indication that such large-scale plot is in the works or that al-Qaeda remains capable of such an attack.
“It’s not like they were only half-heartedly trying to attack us until bin Laden was killed,” a second U.S. counterterrorism official said. “This is an organization with one main mission: to attack the United States. The harder they try the more risks they’re going to have to take.”
U.S. intelligence officials said that Zawahiri is presumed to be hiding in Pakistan. The trove of materials found at the compound where bin Laden was killed has not provided significant new clues to Zawahiri’s location. But officials said the completion of the decade-long bin Laden manhunt has freed up intelligence resources to pursue other targets, including Zawahiri.
Building a brand
Al-Qaeda has become a different organization than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. With growing affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, it is more diffuse in its reach and in its mission. Experts say the network can’t be controlled by a single leader on a day-to-day basis, and perhaps not even in a long-term sense.
“What has happened is that al-Qaeda has become more of a brand name in fomenting terrorism,” said David Livingstone, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Whether Zawahiri can effectively build up his own brand is one of many open questions. With U.S. officials now in possession of the intelligence haul from bin Laden’s compound, Zawahiri might be leery of communicating with his followers. And the courier system might not be the best way to reach them.
“Would Zawahiri be using the same methodology when it has been shown to have failed?” Livingstone said. “He’s got to be able to communicate somehow.”
Sheridan reported from Cairo. Staff writers Peter Finn, Greg Miller and Jason Ukman and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report. Washington Post.