ISLAMABAD — Al Qaida moved Thursday to fill the leadership vacuum caused by the death of Osama bin Laden, announcing that his deputy has taken over.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egpytian doctor familiar to the world from numerous video messages, was always the likely successor but there had been surprise that al Qaida was taking so long to confirm it, amid rumors of a split in the organization. But given the intense intelligence focus on al Qaida in the wake of the death of bin Laden on May 2nd, the group will have found it difficult to consult senior members before making the announcement.
Saif al-Adel, also an Egyptian, said to be head of the al Qaida "shura" council, had been acting as interim leader.
Zawahiri and al-Adel, like bin Laden, are believed by U.S. intelligence to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan, where the al Qaida leadership relocated in late 2001 to escape the U.S. onslaught in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The new al Qaida leader, a 60-year-old jihadi veteran, will find it difficult to replace the charisma and undisputed inspiration that bin Laden brought to the terrorist organization. Zawahiri, a dry man with an academic style, given to lecture al Qaida followers, is not universally popular even within the group.
"The general command of al Qaeda announces, after consultations, the appointment of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri as head of the group," the group announced, in a statement posted on an Islamist website.
Al Qaida will continue to try to hit the United States, and its ally Israel, under the new leadership.
"We seek with the aid of God to call for the religion of truth and incite our nation to fight ... by carrying out jihad against the apostate invaders ... with their head being crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them," said the statement.
Washington is placing intense pressure on Islamabad to mount urgent joint U.S.-Pakistan intelligence operations to eliminate the remainder of al Qaida, as the organization struggles to recover from the loss of its leader.
A U.S. special forces team found and killed bin Laden in a large house in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan, on May 2nd. However, the operation did not involve Pakistan and it wasn't even warned in advanced before the heli-borne squad of navy SEALs flew into its territory. That has caused an intense anti-American backlash within the Pakistani military, which is reluctant to extend co-operation to the U.S.
U.S. officials, after initially alleging that Pakistan may have been complicit in hiding bin Laden, have said that there is "no evidence" that any high-ranking Pakistani officials knew of his presence in Abbottabad.
"There may have been disputes and conflicts within al Qaeda, including over his leadership, that Zawahiri needed to resolve before formally taking over," said Noman Benotman, a former close associate of Zawahiri, who now works as an analyst at Quilliam, an "anti-extremist" research organization in London.
"Zawahiri's first step as leader will be to try to decontaminate the group's reputation in the Muslim world. Ever since the Iraq war, al Qaida has been mistrusted by many Muslims and even by other hardline Islamist groups for its killing of Muslim civilians," Benotman said, in a statement.
Following 9/11, when al Qaida had to go deep underground, copycat movements, including the blood-thirsty al Qaida in Iraq and numerous jihadist groups in Pakistan, took on its extreme ideology of violence, mostly directly at fellow Muslims. Al Qaida believes that most governments in Muslim countries as "apostate," meaning they are not true believers and should be targeted by the group.
It also legitimized targeting civilians, arguing that they were not true Muslims either.
Zawahiri, in a recent 28-minute video recording, his first pronouncement since the death of bin Laden, called on al Qaida and its affiliates to stop blowing up public places. He also tried to to embrace the pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
(Saeed Shah in a McClatchy special correspondent)