Who will be next al-Qaeda top dog?

2011-05-11 09:22
Baghdad - A week after the death of Osama bin Laden, his longtime deputy is considered the front-runner to succeed the iconic al-Qaeda founder.

But uprisings in the Middle East and changing dynamics within the group could point to another scenario: a decision not to appoint anyone to replace the world's most-wanted terrorist.

Replacing bin Laden, who founded al-Qaeda more than two decades ago and masterminded 9/11, may be no easy task. Analysts say the choice will likely depend on how the terror organisation views its goals and priorities in the post-bin Laden age.

The revolt across the Arab world over the past few months was driven by aspirations for democracy, not the al-Qaeda goal of a religiously-led state spanning the Muslim world.

And as al-Qaeda struggles to prove its relevance, the group has become increasingly decentralised and prone to internal disputes.

Possible successor

Whether al-Qaeda "even need name an 'official' new leader is uncertain", wrote Rita Katz and Josh Devon in a report by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist web traffic.

"So long as the group can continue to issue messages ... the group will remain a guiding light for the global jihadist community."

If al-Qaeda does pick a successor, Sawyer and other analysts said Ayman al-Zawahri, 59, is the most likely choice because he was bin Laden's longtime deputy and has far more experience than younger candidates.

Few may want to challenge him openly for the top spot, analysts said.

"If he is passed over for someone else, it tells me that al-Qaeda has already splintered," said Fawaz Gerges, an al-Qaeda scholar at the London School of Economics.

One possible challenger is Abu Yahia al-Libi, a Libyan who serves as al-Qaeda's Afghanistan commander. Al-Libi, an Islamic scholar, escaped from the US's Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2005 and began appearing in videos released by the terror group.

Another possibility is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who was indicted by the US for his role in the August 7 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.

But his close ties with al-Zawahri and lack of religious credentials make him unlikely to lead the group.


If al-Zawahri is the successor, he will face sharp challenges in trying to make his severely debilitated organisation a force following the Arab spring and bin Laden's death in a US raid on his hideout in Pakistan.

In the popular revolts that broke out in Tunisia and spread throughout the Arab world, youthful protesters demanded democracy - a system of government despised by jihadis as against the laws of God - rather than a religiously based state as called for by al-Qaeda.

For the three-fifths of the Arab population that is under 30, the bombings on September 11 2001, are at best a childhood memory.

"Bin Laden became part of the past, just like the Arab regimes that have been toppled," said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic jihadi movements. "What a coincidence that the same year Arab authoritarian rulers collapse, bin Laden dies."

No ideological differences

Al-Zawahri is likely to try to reconnect to people outside al-Qaida's core group as a way to rebuild the organization, wrote Noman Benotman and James Brandon in a report by Quilliam, a British counterterrorism think tank.

Under al-Zawahri's leadership, many al-Qaeda analysts say there would be few immediate changes in al-Qaeda's operating principles.

Al-Zawahri and bin Laden had no ideological differences and both considered the US, known in jihadist circles as the "far enemy", as the most important target.
Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  osama bin laden  |  ayman al-zawahri  |  pakistan  |  afghanistan  |  security

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