Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has ascended to the top role in Al Qaeda, according to a statement released on jihadist websites. Zawahiri, a 59-year-old Egyptian and a surgeon by training, has long played a key role in the group. According to the Times, he has "been described as the operational leader, but is seen as lacking Bin Laden’s charisma." Zawahari is more talkative and argumentative — and harder to get along with, reports say.
Before joining forces with Al Qaeda in 1998, Zawahiri played a key role in another terrorist group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was indicted for his role in the '98 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Following 9/11, he became a more frequent video spokesman for the terrorist organization, if a less recognizable symbol of it in America. It's unclear precisely where the group's new No. 1 is hiding — it was long thought to be somewhere on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, but, like bin Laden, he could very well be somewhere outside the region's tribal belt.
The big question following bin Laden's death was whether the terrorist group would be less dangerous without him. Writing in Slate, Daniel Byman argued that a new leader would need to consolidate his power in order to be effective; regional Al Qaeda groups have "a structure and identity independent of al-Qaida," and it was bin Laden's personality and crucial access to money that kept them within the fold. Yemen — not exactly a bastion of stability these days — now has the most powerful faction, according to the Guardian. Zawahiri already seems to be trying to address the criticism that he lacks the magnetism needed for the role. In a recent video message, he reached for grander rhetoric than his usual style. "He's no longer giving instructions or going into detail but talking in general terms, like a leader, as Bin Laden used to," military expert Baker Atyan told the Guardian.
But even with a new speech book, Zawahiri might not be able to overcome his divisive reputation. Byman also reported that "[d]uring the early 1980s in Egypt, according to some reports, he betrayed his comrades after being tortured in Hosni Mubarak's dungeons — understandable, perhaps, but hardly an asset in radical circles." More crucially for Al Qaeda, Zawahiri is not likely to appeal to the vast majority of the Muslim world that has little sympathy for the group's extremist zeal.
Ayman al-Zawahiri to head al-Qaida following Bin Laden's death [Guardian UK]
Zawahri, Bin Laden’s No. 2, to Lead Al Qaeda [NYT]
Al-Qaida After Osama [Slate]
Statement Regarding the Succession in the Leadership of Qaida’t al-Jihad [PDF]