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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.