This image provided by SITE Intelligence Group shows Ayman al-Zawahiri...

This image provided by SITE Intelligence Group shows Ayman al-Zawahiri on June 8, 2011. Credit: Getty/HO

Peter Bergen is the director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America andal-Qaeda." This is from The Washington Post.

There's nothing like finally getting the top job after a decade of faithfully playing second fiddle to a high-profile boss.

But for al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahri, the dour Egyptian surgeon and longtime deputy to Osama bin Laden, succeeding his old leader comes with an unexpected challenge: His predecessor, it turns out, has gifted him a bit of a lemon. The organization and brand are in deep trouble, and Zawahri is quite unlikely to become the leader who can turn things around.

Al-Qaida is peddling an ideology that has lost much of its purchase in the Muslim world, and it hasn't mounted a successful terrorist attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, transportation bombings in London. The terrorist network's plots to blow up seven American, British and Canadian planes over the Atlantic in 2006, to set off bombs in Manhattan in 2009, and to mount Mumbai-style attacks in Europe a year later all came to nothing.

This significant record of failure predates the momentous events of the Arab Spring -- events in which al-Qaida's leaders, foot soldiers and ideas played no role.

Meanwhile, U.S. drone strikes have decimated the bench of al-Qaida's commanders since the summer of 2008, when President George W. Bush authorized a ramped-up program of attacks in Pakistan's tribal regions. And in the two most populous Muslim nations -- Indonesia and Pakistan -- favorable views of bin Laden and support for suicide bombings dropped by at least half between 2003 and 2010.

The key force behind this decline has been the deaths of Muslim civilians at the hands of jihadist terrorists. Though jihadist groups position themselves as the defenders of the Islamic faith, it has become clear that their actions are quite damaging to Muslims themselves.

Conscious of this problem, in December 2007 Zawahri and his handlers took the unprecedented step of soliciting questions from anyone over the Internet; the al-Qaida leader answered them four months later.

It did not go well. Someone identifying himself as a teacher asked: "Excuse me, Mr. Zawahri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?" Zawahri responded that he could justify al-Qaida's killings of Muslim civilians, and he did so defensively in dense, recondite passages that referred to other dense, recondite things he had already said about the matter.

This exchange only confirmed Zawahri's shortcomings. He is an ineffective leader who is not well-regarded or well-liked -- even by the various jihadist groups from his native Egypt. And his half-dozen public disquisitions over the past several weeks about the events of the Arab Spring have been greeted by a well-deserved collective yawn in the Middle East.

Zawahri's persona makes a real difference to the future of al-Qaida, whose members had sworn a personal religious oath of obedience to bin Laden. It's far from clear how many of them will automatically transfer that oath to Zawahri.

When bin Laden's followers described their feelings for him, it was with love. There's no evidence to suggest that Zawahri inspires similar feelings. More often he comes off as a classic middle manager, as when he complained in a pre-9/11 memo that al-Qaida members in Yemen had spent too much money on a fax machine.

But as the Arab Spring turns into a long, hot and violent summer, Zawahri will try to exploit the regional chaos to achieve his central goal: establishing a new haven for al-Qaida. The one place he might be able to pull this off is Yemen. U.S. counterterrorism officials have identified the al-Qaida affiliate there as the most dangerous of the group's regional branches.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Zawahri wrote in his autobiography that al-Qaida's most important goal was to seize control of significant territory somewhere in the Muslim world. He explained that "without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances."

He may have a chance to achieve it, but given his personal shortcomings, questionable leadership skills and deteriorating institutional brand, there is little reason to suppose that Zawahri will be able to do so -- even in the failing Yemeni state.