The elusive Egyptian surgeon who became al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be unlikely to achieve Osama bin Laden’s level of power and influence.
In the aftermath of bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special operations forces at a house in Pakistan, the U.S. and its allies are looking to strike a further blow against al-Qaeda, such as apprehending his deputy who has championed a radical interpretation of Islam that legitimizes suicide bombers.
While his numerous video messages have made Zawahiri a key motivational figure, his lack of recent combat experience and the emergence of al-Qaeda splinter groups make it difficult for him to fill the leadership void left by bin Laden’s death, analysts said.
That may mean new threats will come from many directions -- from al-Qaeda central, al-Qaeda offshoots and independent operators inspired by bin Laden or aspiring to succeed him. Zawahiri’s challengers may include younger radicals such as U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who has a following for his English-language lectures. He allegedly dispatched a suicide bomber wearing explosive underwear in an unsuccessful December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner.
“There is a large number of younger leaders much more proven in combat and much more capable of organizing a threat,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Zawahiri is “the person we focus on after bin Laden because it’s very hard to explain that this is a complex structure and the cadre at the top is not operating and controlling the organization.”
Zawahiri, who met bin Laden in the 1980s when both men joined the fight against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, may be even more difficult to find because he is known for blending in with the masses in Pakistan. The U.S. government is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his apprehension or conviction.
It was Zawahiri who urged bin Laden to deploy suicide attackers against the West, persuading the al-Qaeda leader that using the Palestinian tactic -- forbidden by the Saudi brand of Islam on which he was raised -- is permitted “martyrdom,” said Fawaz Gerges, author of the 2005 book “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.” He has been seen by terrorism specialists as bringing organizing skills and strategic thinking to the core al-Qaeda group.
Bin Laden’s power and influence came from his role as the founder of al-Qaeda, fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks, said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Zawahiri won’t be seen as a true replacement for bin Laden unless he does something al-Qaeda followers see as equally “heroic,” Biddle said.
Zawahiri’s main contribution to the movement in recent years has been a series of video and audio messages, said Dan Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
While the messages are “small, rambling tidbits,” Byman said in an interview, “they are important because they show the organization is still active and they show a strategic plan of what to target and they enthuse a new generation of recruits.”
In a video message in January 2006, two weeks after evading a U.S. air strike in northwestern Pakistan that was meant for him and killed as many as 18 people, sparking anti-U.S. protests, Zawahiri taunted President George W. Bush.
“Bush, do you know where I am?” Zawahiri, sporting his trademark turban and owlish glasses, said in the English translation of the videotape, which was aired by al-Jazeera television. “I am among the Muslim masses.”
Locating Zawahiri, 59, may be tough. Unlike bin Laden, whose height and thin build set him apart in crowds, Zawahiri has frustrated U.S. forces with his ability to hide in Pakistan’s cities. The FBI doesn’t have information about his height, weight or build.
U.S. officials believe that Zawahiri is somewhere in Pakistan, said Byman, who is also a former staff member of the U.S. government’s National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission.
“Zawahiri will be very careful of his personal security, but he needs to consolidate his position; he needs to be out there,” Byman said in an interview. “In his new capacity he needs to meet and communicate, and then he’s vulnerable.”
While bin Laden represented the face of terrorism to the U.S. public, Zawahiri planned many of al-Qaeda’s attacks and furnished arguments used to justify them. He has been indicted in the U.S. for ordering suicide bombings and was jailed in his native Egypt for seeking to violently overthrow the government.
“Zawahiri was al-Qaeda’s operations chief, but the whole point of the group was to devolve power into cells that act more like franchises,” said Gareth Price, an analyst at the international affairs research center Chatham House in London, who advises European governments.
In the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. that killed more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon just outside Washington and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, al-Qaeda offshoots have sprung up around the Islamic world, from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa to Iraq and the Arabian peninsula.
“You are not going to defeat al-Qaeda by decapitating it,” Cordesman said. “This is a movement that has not only more than one head, it has a great many more than one body.”
Zawahiri was wanted in the U.S. even before the Sept. 11 attacks. He was indicted in absentia in 1999 for the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, and was also considered the mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 sailors died.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri began working together in 1988, and the alliance between Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was sealed in 1998 when the two signed a “fatwa,” or religious decree, in the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi calling for Muslims to murder Americans.