Al-Qaeda has confirmed the death of Osama Bin Laden but has not yet officially named a successor, indicating that the senior leadership is having difficulty communicating and possibly a reluctance to embrace Ayman al-Zawahiri as their new chief. New figures will fill the leadership gap left by Bin Laden’s absence and the inevitable arrests and deaths that will follow, but it is unclear if they can unite behind a common figurehead and strategy.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda, is likely to become Bin Laden’s official replacement. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has already pledged allegiance to him, but he has had conflicts with other members of Al-Qaeda and lacks the allure and charisma of Osama Bin Laden. As one senior U.S. intelligence official explained, “It is of course an anathema for Al-Qaeda to hold free and fair elections, but if such elections were held, al-Zawahiri would most likely have a fight on his hands.”
Should al-Zawahiri effectively take the reins the group, he will continue its current general strategy. He is, however, conscious of the blowback Al-Qaeda has gotten because of its attacks on Muslims. In a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then-head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, he criticized his tactics, specifically beheadings, attacks on Iraqi Shiites and the bombing of mosques. He said these methods were jeopardizing public support, without which the “movement would be crushed in the shadows.” He asked Zarqawi to stop using such tactics, rather than justifying them, because “this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it.” This rift indicates that al-Zawahiri would try to reduce tension with the Shiites and other Muslims and focus on Western targets instead of Muslim civilians.
Abu Yahya al-Al-Libi, a likely second-in-command for al-Zawahiri, has become Al-Qaeda’s most visible spokesperson. He is very charismatic, relatively young and is known both as a religious scholar and terrorist commander. It would be wise of al-Zawahiri to make al-Libi the head of the group but it is doubtful that he could swallow his pride enough to do so.
In July 2005, al-Libi escaped Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, catching the attention of his fellow extremists. He is the younger brother of the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is very significant given its criticism of Al-Qaeda’s strategy. In 2009, the group released a “corrective studies” that said Al-Qaeda must focus on fighting colonizers instead of other Muslims and should stop using violence to bring about Sharia law.
“Islam is a pragmatic religion, which acknowledges that war is a part of human life, but it doesn’t call for the use of violence for the sake of change and reforms,” the group said. It is unclear how much this thinking has influenced al-Libi, though he joined other Al-Qaeda members in criticizing Zarqawi’s viciousness.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen, rivals Al-Libi in influence and may overshadow him if his group keeps up the current pace of plots and inspiration of homegrown extremism. It is also possible that al-Awlaki will overshadow Al-Zawahiri if he is unable to effectively manage operations, communicate with senior leadership or use al-Libi to make up for his own weaknesses.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen, will overshadow him unless al-Zawahiri is able to pull off a major operation. Al-Awlaki has charisma, a huge Internet presence and served as the imam of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, giving him religious credibility.
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