LONDON — Egyptian radical Ayman al Zawahiri on Wednesday issued his first statement since U.S. special forces killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In a video, Zawahiri promised to carry on the al Qaida founder's war against the West.
But Zawahiri, long bin Laden's deputy, did not claim bin Laden's mantle as the head of al Qaida, an omission that adds to the ongoing debate among terrorism experts over who will lead the terrorist organization.
"The man who terrified America in his life will continue to terrify it after his death," Zawahiri said in the 28-minute video, which was released by al Qaida's media branch. The video showed scenes of Zawahiri and bin Laden together and of Zawahiri alone, but offered no explicit statement of who was in charge.
At a conference on terrorism here, one former jihadist, Noman Benotman, a Libyan who fought in Afghanistan as part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, said he believes Zawahiri, who is considered less charismatic and more divisive than bin Laden, won't lead the organization alone.
Some of the leadership functions, Benotman said, are likely to be assumed by a former Guantanamo detainee, Ibrahim al Rubaish, 33, a cleric from Saudi Arabia who is now the spiritual leader of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group's affiliate in Yemen.
Placing Rubaish in a leadership role would let al Qaida "keep the narrative" of its Saudi roots, Benotman said. Moreover, Rubaish's four years at Guantanamo elevate his role as a jihadist.
"To have been a prisoner, it's very important," said Benotman, who now analyzes radical Islam at the Quilliam research group in London. "No one can question his credibility or his willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause."
He cast Rubaish as "not militant," but "a real sheikh, a classic sheikh" — using the term to describe a religious leader. Three other likely candidates to run the terror group, he said, are now in Saudi prisons.
Rubaish's Guantanamo intelligence profile, made public by WikiLeaks, casts him as an al Qaida-trained Saudi who went to Afghanistan to fight the Russians in Chechnya but instead joined with the Taliban and then fled to Tora Bora with bin Laden and hundreds of other devotees after Sept. 11, 2001.
He was among Guantanamo's earliest captives, held for months in the open-air cages at Camp X-Ray, and a participant in its earliest hunger strikes. But his 2005 military intelligence profile, written a year before his release, only hints at his leadership potential, quoting another Saudi captive as telling Guantanamo interrogators that Rubaish "has some type of leadership role among detainees and strongly influences them."
The administration of President George W. Bush released Rubaish to Saudi Arabia in 2006 to take part in a rehabilitation program that in his case apparently failed. U.S. officials have provided no specifics on how Rubaish came to be in Yemen, but the Saudi Interior Ministry declared him a wanted man in February 2009.
In Washington, Carnegie Endowment for Peace scholar Christopher Boucek agreed Zawahiri and Rubaish could emerge as the new al Qaida leaders. But Boucek said another former U.S. captive also could lay claim to bin Laden's mantle.
Abu Yahiya al Libi was never held in Guantanamo but escaped from the U.S. lockup at Bagram, Afghanistan, in July 2005. Boucek called the Libyan a "video savvy poet" who trained as an Islamic scholar and has engaged combat.
"The leader of the global movement needs to be able to reach the troops, resonate with sympathizers, and keep ideological cohesion and discipline," Boucek said.
Until U.S. SEALs raided his secret Abbotabad compound in Pakistan, and killed him on May 2, bin Laden, who founded al Qaida, had served all functions.
The question of who'll succeed bin Laden has loomed large over this week's International Security and Terror conference in London, which brings together journalists, analysts, Muslim clerics and former jihadists who specialize in tracking al Qaida and related terrorism organizations.
The U.S. has offered a $25 million reward for Zawahiri, 59, and a smaller $1 million bounty for al Libi, 48, who is described as "a key motivator in the global jihadi movement" whose "messages convey a clear threat to U.S. persons or property worldwide," on the U.S. State Department's Rewards for Justice website.
But there is no reward offered for Rubaish, who celebrated the ouster of Tunisia's strongman in a February audio recording that urged revolutionaries there to impose Shariah law.
In April, he conjured up imagery of Quran abuse at Guantanamo in remarks addressed to Yemeni soldiers that described their "ruler" as in league with the Americans.
At Guantanamo, the Saudi cast himself as a run-of-the-mill jihadist who got AK-47 training at the Farouk paramilitary camp, unaware it was run by al Qaida. "If a jihad, for God is willing, is considered to be a threat to the United States, then all Muslims are a threat to the United States," he told a military panel.
At the East London Mosque on Tuesday, a former anti-Soviet fighter and Algerian Islamist who broke with bin Laden in the 1990s over bin Laden's extremism said no single leader can replace him.
"I think Osama bin Laden, with his charisma, with his money and with his history, no one can be equal to him,'' Sheikh Abdullah Anas said.
Anas said he detected in Bin Laden's last recorded address signs that the former Saudi millionaire was embracing the people power Arab Awakening approach to overturning autocratic leaders. But he called Zawahiri, who sought the violent overthrow of Egypt's secular regime, a "taqfir," or extremist "from the beginning."
"Zawahiri has no credibility," he said. During the '80s when Anas and other Arabs went to Afghanistan by way of Pakistan to fight the Soviet invasion and occupation, Zawahiri "was just sitting in Peshawar, criticizing."
Benotman saw Zawahiri differently, as a far more stern disciplined Muslim who may not have the charisma of Bin Laden but has a unique credential as "the only man left on earth" who was a jihadist in the '60s.
In the video released Wednesday, Zawahiri and bin Laden are shown seated together in the mountains, then Zawahiri is shown alone.
Zawahri calls for Yemenis to expel the Americans and for Pakistanis to rebel against their leaders as well.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
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