Veteran militant Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken command of al-Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, an Islamist Web site said yesterday, a move widely expected following his long years as second-in-command.
Bin Laden’s lieutenant and the brains behind much of al-Qaeda’s strategy, Zawahiri vowed this month to press ahead with al-Qaeda’s campaign against the US and its allies.
“The general leadership of al-Qaeda group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr Ayman Zawahiri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group,” the Islamist Web site Ansar al-Mujahidin (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement.
The bespectacled Zawahiri had been seen as bin Laden’s most likely successor after the man held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington was shot dead by US Navy SEALS in Pakistan last month.
His whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US is offering a US$25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction.
Former US intelligence officer Robert Ayers said Zawahiri was “a man lacking in charisma, a pale shadow of bin Laden.”
“He’s a gray bureaucrat, not a leader who can energize and rally the troops. The only thing his promotion will accomplish is to elevate his priority as a target for the US,” Ayers said.
Sajjan Gohel of Asia-Pacific Foundation security consultants said Zawahiri had been in practical charge of al-Qaeda for many years, but lacked bin Laden’s presence and his “ability to unite the different Arab factions within the group.”
Others see a more accomplished figure.
London-based journalist Abdel-Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996, said Zawahiri was the “operational brains” behind al-Qaeda and was respected in part because he had been bin Laden’s chosen deputy.
“He managed to transform al-Qaeda from being a small organization focused on expelling US interests from Saudi Arabia into a global organization. The men he brought to al-Qaeda from his own Egyptian Islamic Jihad group proved to be the instruments that drove al-Qaeda’s international push,” Atwan said.
Believed to be in his late 50s, Zawahiri met bin Laden in the mid-1980s when both were in Pakistan to support guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Born to an upper-class Cairo family, Zawahiri trained as a doctor and surgeon.
Zawahiri has called this year’s Arab uprisings a disaster for Washington because, he said, they would remove Arab leaders who were the corrupt “agents of America.”
He has also pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar.
Among some Egyptians there was disdain at the news.
Karim Sabet, 34, a director of an oil and gas startup firm, said he was not surprised.
“He’s been the loyal No. 2 forever. Zawahiri seems even more of a mad man than Osama was and he’ll want to prove himself by going on the attack soon. Another devil killing in the name of Islam. Disgusting,” Sabet said.