Al Qaeda names Ayman al-Zawahiri as new leader

A month and a half after the death of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist organization he founded has finally found a new leader: Al Qaeda announced on Thursday that it has selected Ayman al-Zawahiri to lead the Islamist terror network. The news was released via a statement on a jihadist website and news organizations are now scrambling to gather information on the new leader; already, some observers are wondering what took them so long.

Al-Zawahiri, a bearded, gentle-looking man who hates America, was last seen in a videotaped eulogy for bin Laden, who was killed by US Navy SEALS in a May 2 raid on his Pakistani compound. In the video, Al-Zawahiri, who turns 60 next week, explains that America faces not an array of splintered Islamist groups, but a community of Muslims who actively want to destroy it; an assault rifle leans against the wall behind him.

  • Who is Ayman Al-Zawahiri? Ayman Al-Zawahiri was born in Cairo, Egypt, the son of a prominent, upper-middle class family of doctors. Though Zawahiri attended and graduated from Egypt’s most prestigious medical school, where he trained as an eye surgeon, in 1974, he had long been involved in political dissident groups and was reportedly arrested at the age of 15 for his involvement with the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood Islamist group. In the 1980s, Zawahiri turned to underground Islamism, working in Pakistan as a doctor treating fighters injured in Afghanistan’s war with the Soviets. By the 1990s, he was fully involved in terrorism, having taken over the leadership of Jihad, Egypt’s second largest Islamic armed group; in 1993, he was sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt for extremist activities. In 1998, Jihad merged with Al Qaeda to form a sort of super-villain’s terrorist network.Some claim that Zawahiri, bin Laden’s closest advisor, was the real brains behind the worldwide terror franchise, and may have masterminded the September 11 attacks, though he lacked in the charisma that bin Laden exuded. Since September 11, Zawahiri released dozens of broadcast messages, promoting the jihad against America, urging attacks on American and Western embassies, and calling on Muslims to fight. He earned himself a place on America’s most wanted list, right behind bin Laden, with a $25 million reward on his head.
  • Can he lead Al Qaeda? Maybe, maybe not. Though Zawahiri was the default choice to lead Al Qaeda, Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, noted that he may struggle to command full authority over all of Al Qaeda’s off-shoots and operations – not only is he supposedly lacking bin Laden’s charisma, but he is an Egyptian, a fact that may work against him in controlling Al Qaeda’s operatives from the Gulf States. Then there’s the fact that it took so long to announce his leadership, pointing to possible divisions in Al Qaeda’s direction. Tim Marshall, writing at Sky News‘s Foreign Matters blog, agreed that “it seems unlikely [Zawahiri] will attract the devotion of violent jihadists”: His “style in addressing followers is long winded and complicated” and “he lacks the looks, the height, and the presence of Bin Laden”. Ultimately, Marshall concluded, “Al Queda had already been severely weakened, Zawahiri’s assumption of leadership is unlikely to strengthen it.”
  • What will he do now? The BBC’s correspondent in the Middle East, Jon Leyne, told the broadcaster that Zawahiri may attempt a large-scale attack to “to show the organisation is still in business”. “In addition, he says, Zawahiri will want to turn the wave of unrest in the Middle East to al-Qaeda’s advantage – perhaps building more of a power base in Yemen and working to intensify the instability there.” Clues as to where those attacks might be were found on the body of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the organisation’s commander in East Africa, who was killed in Somalia last week, The Telegraph reported. On the Al Qaeda hit list: Eton and the Ritz Hotel.
  • Is he a threat? According to US officials, speaking in May after bin Laden’s death, probably not. The AFP recalled the words of Tom Donilon, White House National Security Advisor: “Our assessment is that he is not anywhere near the leader that Osama bin Laden was.”
    • Who else is left? Zawahiri was the natural replacement for al Qaeda’s “martyred” leader, but there are others at the helm as well. The BBC took a look at al Qaeda’s remaining leadership; here are a few:
      • Abu Yahya al-Libi, also known as Hasan Qayid and Yunis al-Sahrawi: Possibly a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group before he fell into the al Qaeda fold, Libi is now emerging as al Qaeda’s most visible spokesman and leading theologian. He is also al Qaeda’s field commander in Afghanistan.
      • Khalid al-Habib: Egyptian or Moroccan, Habib is al Qaeda’s “military commander”.
      • Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah: The chief of al-Qaeda’s “external operations council”, Shukrijumah lived in America for 15 years, the son of a Saudi cleric who moved to a post at a mosque in Brooklyn.
      • Saad bin Laden: One of bin Laden’s sons, Saad bin Laden has long been involved in Al Qaeda activities as one of the inner circle; however, a US officials claim that an adult son was killed with the senior bin Laden during the May 2 and it is unknown whether that son was Saad.
      • Anwar al-Awlaki: A radical Muslim cleric from Yemen, Awlaki has been linked to attacks across the world, including September 11 and the Fort Hood massacre in November 2009. US officials claim that he is the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a dangerous off-shoot of Al Qaeda that reportedly recruited the failed Christmas Day bomber; Awlaki’s family, however, claims that he is not a terrorist.

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