Brutal new breed of contenders wait to take Bin Laden crown

The next generation of al-Qa'ida commanders will be considerably more brutal than Osama bin Laden, according to intelligence experts, including the man who once led the CIA's battle to capture the terror network's founder.

Senior al-Qa'ida leaders officially confirmed Bin Laden's death last week but their statement made no mention of who might succeed the 54-year-old Saudi. Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, his long-time brother-in-arms and al-Qa'ida's official number two, is almost certain to oversee the immediate power vacuum caused.

Terrorism analysts say a string of younger successors keen to prove their military prowess with headline-grabbing violence will jostle for global recognition in the coming years. In an interview with The Independent, Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, said he believed the al-Qa'ida leader had deliberately taken a back seat in recent years to give space to younger ideologues.

"Zawahiri may take over in the short term but he's a pretty abrasive guy and he's always been at sixes and sevens with the Gulf Arabs," Scheuer said. "I tend to think that the next generation of commanders will be more educated, more able to use the tools of modernity and also more vicious. In three or four years we'll come to see Bin Laden as a more tolerant and less bloodthirsty man than the generation that succeeded him."

Speculation over who will now emerge as al-Qa'da's top lieutenants comes as the US desperately tries to seize the initiative following Bin Laden's death, with the first drone strikes in more than a year hitting Yemen last week.

Two names that are being cited by terrorism experts as examples of al-Qa'ida's new breed are Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan who escaped from US military custody in Afghanistan, and Nassir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al- Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Both men have exhibited much of the charisma that gave Bin Laden such a wide following, and each has experience of the front lines, unlike better-known English-speaking al-Qa'ida propagandists such as Anwar al-Awlaki and the Jewish-born American covert Adam Gadahn.

Al-Libi, who joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group before pledging allegiance to al-Qa'ida, is seen as a particular rising star. Since his daring escape from Bagram airbase in 2005 he has appeared in numerous videos produced by al-Sabah, the official media wing of al-Qa'ida. A charismatic poet, he has gained a wide following within global jihadist circles as director of the terror network's jurisprudence committee and has written extensive theological justifications for al-Qa'ida's tactics at a time when the terror network was being castigated by prominent theologians for its indiscriminate killings.

Al-Wuhayshi, who once served as Bin Laden's aide-de-camp, also engineered a 2006 break out of a prison in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, and has gone on to revive the fortunes of AQAP with an alliance between Saudi and Yemeni militants backed by ferocious tactics against opponents.

When al-Qa'ida finally released its eulogy to Bin Laden it specifically included a call for Pakistanis to rise up against their government. Reports this week in Karachi Islam, an Urdu paper with close ties to Pakistani militants, says a new leader has now been appointed to head up al-Qa'ida operations in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The job has reportedly been given to Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, an Uighur Muslim from China ,who is head of the Turkistan Islamic Party, the militant group that wants to create an Islamic state in Xinjiang, just across the Himalayas. Little is known about Shakoor other than that he took over from Abdul Haq Turkistani, after he was killed in a drone strike last year. If the reports are true, Shakoor will likely oversee the training of European recruits to al-Qa'ida who make it to the tribal areas.

Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who has since renounced violent Islamism and now works for the Quilliam think-tank, disagrees with Mr Scheuer's belief that militants like al-Libi or al-Wuhayshi have enough clout to take over quickly from Zawahiri. But he is convinced that the younger commanders will be even more violent than their predecessors.

"These guys feel like they need to prove themselves and create worldwide notoriety," he said. "And the only way they think they can do that is through military operations. They are a brutal group. But fortunately no one, not even al-Zawahiri, has the global reach and appeal of Bin Laden."

Terrorism watchers say Iraq could provide a grim indication of how the next generation of al-Qa'ida commanders may behave. Until US Special Forces tracked him down in the summer of 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – al-Qa'ida's then commander in Iraq – had caused widespread devastation and revulsion, pioneering sectarian butchery on a level that horrified Iraqis and even earned him a stern public rebuke from al-Zawahiri.

Younger generation fighters like al-Libi and al-Wuhayshi, however, are less bothered about protecting al-Qa'ida from charges among fellow Muslims that they are overly brutal.

"Young, media savvy, ideologically extreme and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments, Abu Yahya offers the global al-Qa'ida movement everything the old guard cannot," explains Jarret Brachman, a terrorism analyst who is writing a book on likely successors to Bin Laden. "There is currently some reticence within al-Qa'ida's leadership about major violence– especially after Zarqawi in Iraq and in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the younger generations are much less ideologically averse to that sort of violence."

Many terror experts believe a quick strike against al-Zawahiri, coming soon after Bin Laden's demise, would be a body blowthat could truly cripple al-Qa'ida. "It would be disastrous for them," says Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, who has studied terrorist networks for the past 30 years. "Zawahiri has been a power player at all of al-Qa'ida's key strategic junctures. They would really find it hard to bounce back from that."

In the crosshairs...

Anwar al-Awlaki

Background: Born in New Mexico, Awlaki is a dual US and Yemeni citizen. He is said to have been directly in contact with three of the 9/11 hijackers, the Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber.

Price on his head: The US government has tried to kill him, but has not yet offered a bounty.

Location: Yemen's south-east province of Shabwa.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Background: Longtime deputy of Osama bin Laden, he is widely tipped to take over as leader ofal-Qa'ida. Born in Egypt, Zawahiri trained as a surgeon before becoming head of Islamic Jihad.

Price on his head: $25m. He is indicted in the US for the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Location: Probably Pakistan, but likely to be on the move after Bin Laden's killing.

Abu Yahya al-Libi

Background: Charismatic Libyan Islamic scholar who has risen rapidly through the ranks. Dramatically escaped from the high-security military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005.

Price on his head: $1m

Location: He is thought to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but the raid on Bin Laden's hide-out may provide more accurate intelligence.

Adam Gadahn

Background: An American, Gadahn, who was born Adam Pearlman, is one of al-Qa'ida's leading spokesmen, especially for the English-speaking world. Regarded as a key leader of As Sahab, al-Qa'ida's media arm.

Price on his head: $1m

Location: Probably Pakistan. Reports that he has already been killed have been denied.

Nassir al-Wuhayshi

Background: The Yemeni leader of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, he once served as Osama bin Laden's secretary. Escaped Iranian custody in 2005 and now heads lists of wanted terrorists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Price on his head: No specific value, although as a key lieutenant of Bin Laden's, al-Wuhayshi would be a prized capture.

Location: Assumed to be in northern Yemen.

Ilyas Kashmiri

Background: Barely known among the US public, but Kashmiri, a Pakistani, has been wanted by the Americans for several years. A former Pakistani army commando, he is thought to be behind plans for 'Mumbai-style' attacks in Europe.

Price on his head: Nothing yet, but he is seen as a charismaticrising star within al-Qa'ida

Location: Probably Pakistan. It is unclear whether he still has contacts within the Pakistani army.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Manager

£10 - £11 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: Nursery Manager We are loo...

Early Years Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Early Years supply teachers neede...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor