America's new most wanted: Bin Laden's No 2 appointed al-Qa'ida chief

Terror group's ruling council hands reins to Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, a close associate of Saudi target killed by US forces

Ayman al-Zawahiri has become the world's most wanted man after al-Qa'ida announced that the Egyptian-born surgeon succeeded Osama bin Laden to head the global terror organisation six weeks after the Saudi leader's slaying in Pakistan.

"The general command of al-Qa'ida, after completing consultations, decided that the sheikh doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahiri take the responsibility and be in charge of the group," said a statement, purportedly issued by al-Qa'ida and posted on several jihadist websites.

Long-serving as Bin Laden's deputy, the al-Qa'ida co-founder has effectively served as the operational head of the terror group for at least the past six years. But there are doubts about whether Zawahiri will be able to maintain the terror syndicate's cohesion, or watch it will fracture into smaller, localised groups in the absence of Bin Laden's symbolic leadership.

There were early signs of support from one of the most dangerous al-Qa'ida affiliates yesterday as the Pakistani Taliban backed the succession. "We share the same path with al-Qa'ida," said Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan. "We are allies." Pakistan is reeling from a series of deadly "revenge" attacks since the raid that killed Bin Laden.

But it remains to be seen if Zawahiri can exert similar sway over other branches of the terror franchise in the Arab world. Marginalised by the Arab Spring, which has dealt a severe blow to al-Qa'ida's attempts to rally public support behind their murderous methods as a means of toppling dictators, the terror group faces a crisis of relevance.

Beyond Pakistan, the terror group has affiliates in the Arab Peninsula and North Africa. These groups are seen by experts to be exercising greater autonomy, and it is unlikely that Gulf jihadists will defer to a wizened and fractious Egyptian jihadist, who has none of his Saudi predecessor's mystique.

At the White House yesterday, officials suggested they were not intimidated by the news of Zawahiri's ascent to the top post at al-Qa'ida, in part because of his lack of charisma and leadership qualifications. President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, said after Bin Laden's death that Zawahiri had a lot of detractors within al-Qa'ida because he wasn't involved earlier in the fight in Afghanistan.

Fearless, self-righteous, and convinced of the truth of his own beliefs is how the Pulitzer prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright described Zawahiri. These enduring headstrong qualities, he writes in The Looming Tower, "put him in conflict with nearly everyone he would meet".

For Zawahiri, however, staying alive will likely prove his biggest challenge. After evading capture for over a decade, the US has intensified its manhunt, buoyed by the intelligence it has harvested from Bin Laden's compound.

In a sign that he is suspected to be hiding in Pakistan, Hillary Clinton urged the country's leaders to join the US in a combined effort to track him and four other militant leaders on a visit to Islamabad last month. Another name on the list, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reportedly struck down in a drone attack in South Waziristan earlier this month.

A familiar face from the chilling video threats he has issued in recent years, Zawahiri's last known locations are in Pakistan. In January 2006, he fled a hideout in the Bajaur tribal agency town of Damadola before a missile struck. Given the intensity of the current drone effort, many suspect that he may have located to one of Pakistan's cities, where Bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida leaders have been found.

Now nearly 60, Zawahiri first arrived in Pakistan in 1980 to work in relief camps for Afghan refugees. He came from a family of medical professionals, distinguished religious scholars and politicians. Zawahiri's grandfather was Egypt's ambassador to Pakistan.

Inspired by the hardline Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri was only 15 when he helped form an underground Islamist cell intent on overthrowing the Cairo government and establishing an Islamist state. He was later imprisoned for three years in the aftermath of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In the earliest of his television appearances, a young Zawahiri addresses cameras through the bars of a cell. "We tried our best to establish this Islamic state and the Islamic society," he shouts animatedly.



Q&A: The obvious choice – what took so long?

Was this announcement a surprise?

No. Ayman al-Zawahiri has been al-Qa'ida's number two for more than a decade. He has been at the heart of its every tactical and philosophical change.

Why did it take so long?

That's the one perplexing thing about al-Qa'ida's statement. The core leadership are known to replace leaders very quickly. Some security experts have speculated that the delay may have been caused by infighting.

Where is he?

Most analysts would have said somewhere in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. But following Bin Laden's death in Abbottabad, about 40 miles from Islamabad, the US may have to cast a wider net.

Is he a popular figure?

Amongst the most extreme militants, Bin Laden was revered as a charismatic billionaire who gave up a life of luxury to fight jihad. Zawahiri, meanwhile, is notoriously fractious character and has a history of falling out with key militants. He is known to be haughty and an Egyptian supremacist, something which particularly riles Gulf Arab fighters.

What will happen to al-Qa'ida now?

Unless Zawahiri is killed or captured and replaced by a younger generation of leaders, it is likely al-Qa'ida will follow a similar path. A key task for the new leadership will be to make violent Islamist militancy relevant at a time when the Arab Spring has caught militants off guard.

Jerome Taylor

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before