Bin Laden’s longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahri has taken control of al-Qaida, the group said Thursday, a widely anticipated move that comes at a time the terror network is struggling for relevance amid a wave of Arab uprisings that has threatened to upstage it.
Al-Zawahri, a surgeon by training, has long brought ideological fire as well as tactical and organizational cunning to al-Qaida, which has found itself increasingly decentralized and prone to internal disputes following its expulsion from Afghanistan after its invasion by U.S. forces in 2001.
Thursday’s announcement comes more than six weeks after the U.S. killed bin Laden in a May 2 raid on his home in Pakistan. Al-Zawahri pledged to avenge the death of the al-Qaida founder and mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and to continue the terror network’s campaign of attacks against the U.S. and other Western interests.
“The general command of al-Qaida, after completing consultations, decided that the sheik doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahri take the responsibility and be in charge of the group,” said a statement purportedly by al-Qaida and posted on militant websites, including several known to be affiliated with the group.
Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday and has a $25 million bounty on his head, has been behind the use of suicide bombings and the independent militant cells that have become the network’s trademarks. But U.S. intelligence officials have said that some al-Qaida members find al-Zawahri to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden’s populist appeal.
Al-Zawahri has been in hiding for nearly 10 years and is widely believed to be near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He has appeared in dozens of videos and audiotapes in recent years, increasingly becoming the face of al-Qaida as bin Laden kept a lower profile.
Most of his pronouncements on the videos and audiotapes show him to be a man consumed by deep hatred for the West, particularly the United States, and Israel.
Al-Zawahri had been considered the most likely successor because of his longtime collaboration with bin Laden. Analysts had said that few were likely to challenge the al-Qaida deputy leader for the top spot despite some reservations.
Many predicted he would step up attacks to prove himself.
“He was a given leader from the outset. But he doesn’t have the same iconic status or personality as bin Laden,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terror analyst at the Royal Swedish Defense College. “He will focus on attacking the West in a big way. To avenge (bin Laden’s death), but also to make himself … even more effective and relevant.”
Al-Zawahri is the son of an upper middle class Egyptian family of doctors and scholars. His father was a pharmacology professor at Cairo University’s medical school and his grandfather was the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s formal seat of learning.
At the age of 15, he founded his first underground cell of high school students to oppose the Egyptian government. He continued his militant activities while earning his medical degree, later merging his cell with other militants to form Islamic Jihad.
Al-Zawahri served three years in an Egyptian prison before heading to Afghanistan in 1984 to fight the Soviets, where he linked up with bin Laden. Al-Zawahri later followed bin Laden to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, where they found a safe haven under the radical Taliban regime.
Soon after came the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, followed by the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, an attack al-Zawahri is believed to have helped organize.
In a 2001 treatise, he set down the long-term strategy for the jihadi movement — to inflict “as many casualties as possible” on the Americans.
“Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task,” he wrote. “Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar.”
Al-Zawahri’s hatred for Americans has also become deeply personal: His wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks.
Al-Zawahri has worked in the years since to rebuild the organization’s leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border. Al-Qaida has inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.
The CIA came close to capturing him in 2003 and killing him in 2004 — both times in Pakistan. In December 2009, they thought they were again close only to be tricked by a double agent who blew himself up, killing seven agency employees and wounding six more in Khost, Afghanistan.
The statement announcing his succession was filled with the terror network’s usual rhetoric, vowing to continue the fight against what it called “conquering infidels, led by America and its stooge Israel, who attack the homes of Islam.”
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