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Zawahiri steps into bin Laden's shoes at helm of al-Qaeda

Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser and purported successor Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian linked to the al-Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in a file image supplied by the Dawn Newspaper on November 10, 2001.


After a long delay, al-Qaeda's media arm announced a successor for Osama bin Laden over the Internet. "The general command of al-Qaeda, after completing consultations, decided that the sheik doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahiri take the responsibility and be in charge of the group," said the statement. "We seek with the aid of God to call for the religion of truth and incite our nation to fight ... by carrying out jihad against the apostate invaders ... with their head being crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them," it said.

Born in 1951, and trained as a surgeon, Mr. Zawahiri is an Egyptian who got involved in radical Islamist politics in the 1970s and formally became Mr. bin Laden's second-in-command in 1998. He's sometimes described as the "Karl Rove of al-Qaeda," brainy and uncharismatic, but despite his shortcomings as an orator he was always viewed as the natural replacement for Mr. bin Laden. There is a $25-million bounty on his head.

Why was he the obvious choice?

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In part, there's nobody else. A joke among analysts in recent years was that serving as al-Qaeda's "No. 3" is the most dangerous job in the world, because hits on senior terrorist figures were touted as taking out the third in command. Some of that was bluster from Western intelligence agencies, but there did appear to be a dearth of suitable candidates.

Wasn't another al-Qaeda associate named leader?

Pakistani newspaper reported last month that Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer, had been appointed as interim leader. Several other media outlets corroborated this, but the announcement from al-Qaeda does not offer details about Mr. Adel's role. That ambiguity, and the fact that the terrorist group waited 45 days before naming a leader, have been widely interpreted as signs of a power struggle.

"It is surprising that al-Qaeda took such a long time to announce Zawahiri as the group's new leader," said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the think-tank Quilliam, who was a close associate of Mr. Zawahiri in the 1990s. "This is a sign that there may have been disputes and conflicts within al-Qaeda, including over his leadership, that Zawahiri needed to resolve before formally taking over."

How will this promotion affect the organization?

Some say he will focus on attacking the West to nominally avenge his former boss's death, but also to make his own mark. Organizationally, his ascension may not make a difference. "Under his leadership, there really won't be that many changes," former CIA counterterrorist expert Mark Baker told CNN. "It's not like a corporate shakeup."

Does anybody take al-Qaeda seriously any more?

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The United States government has tried to play down Mr. Zawahiri's relevance; one senior official told reporters he "barely matters." Then again, if he were entirely irrelevant the White House would not have bothered to circulate talking points that attack his character, telling journalists that the new al-Qaeda boss lacks combat experience and was an "armchair general." Predictably, the U.S. military promised to hunt and kill the new al-Qaeda leader.

Will this affect the Taliban's war in Afghanistan?

Not really. Three Taliban fighters interviewed by The Globe and Mail in the days after Mr. bin Laden's death seemed uninterested in the question of who should lead al-Qaeda. Most insurgents in Afghanistan draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the "foreigners," meaning Arab extremists with a global vision of holy war. A 40-year-old merchant now fighting NATO forces in southern Afghanistan suggested that al-Qaeda doesn't need a leader: "Everyone in al-Qaeda is Osama," he said.

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