DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s long-serving number two, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, has taken over the leadership after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the group said on Islamist websites on Thursday.
Bin Laden’s lieutenant and the brains behind much of al Qaeda’s strategy, Zawahri vowed this month to press ahead with its campaign against the United States and its allies.
“The general leadership of al Qaeda group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group,” the network said in a statement posted on Islamist websites which it often uses.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Zawahri does not have the “peculiar charisma” and operational experience of bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces last month.
But Gates and other U.S. officials said al Qaeda remains a threat despite losing bin Laden, who was considered the driving force behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
“We should be mindful that ... al Qaeda seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements to those that have been killed and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them,” Gates told reporters.
“So I think he’s (Zawahri’s) got some challenges but I think it’s a reminder that they are still out there and we still need to keep after them,” he said.
Earlier, a U.S. counter-terrorism official told Reuters the United States believed the announcement was genuine, but the State Department was dismissive of its significance. “Frankly, it barely matters,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The bespectacled Zawahri had been seen as bin Laden’s most likely successor.
Zawahri’s whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that Zawahri — an Egyptian-born ideologue — remained high on the U.S. list of hunted militants.
“He and his organization still threaten us. And as we did seek to capture and kill — and succeed in killing — bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri,” Mullen told reporters in Washington.
Earlier, a senior U.S. official said Zawahri would have a hard time leading the Islamist group “while focusing on his own survival.”
“He hasn’t demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills during his time in AQ,” the official said. “Unlike many of AQ’s top members, Zawahri has not had actual combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a ‘soft’ image.”
Sajjan Gohel of Asia-Pacific Foundation security consultants said Zawahri had been in practical charge of al Qaeda for years, but lacked bin Laden’s presence and “ability to unite the different Arab factions within the group.”
Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said al Qaeda’s militants in south Asia were “on the run,” its leaders were deep in hiding, and a new leader would do little to help reverse their fortunes.
As for its branches in other parts of the world, they were “pitted in a fierce local struggle for survival ... and are unable to coordinate their actions with the parent organization.”
Daniel Markey, South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, described Zawahri as a “more divisive leader” compared with bin Laden’s more “spiritual” profile.
“Zawahri comes across as the more politically minded,” and his background from Egypt means he had different relationships within the organization, he said.
“There was a reason why he was number two. He is a lesser figure,” Markey said. “However, in terms of being every bit as militant and eager to demonstrate al Qaeda’s continued significance as a terrorist organization, we should expect that. And if anything, I would imagine that he would be inclined to demonstrate that al Qaeda is still alive and kicking.”
Others see Zawahri as capable.
“He is an able person,” Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“We have been cooperating with al Qaeda in the past and that cooperation will continue in future,” he told Reuters.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has close links to al Qaeda, is blamed for many suicide bombings across Pakistan. It also has ambitions to take its fight overseas. The group claimed responsibility for a botched bombing in New York in May 2010.
London-based journalist Abdel-Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996, said Zawahri was the “operational brains” behind al Qaeda and was respected in part because he had been bin Laden’s chosen deputy.
A contributor to another Islamist militant website, al-Ansar, said: “A worthy successor to a great predecessor. We ask God to grant you and your soldiers success for the victory of Islam and Muslims and to raise the banner of religion.”
Believed to be in his late 50s, Zawahri met bin Laden in the mid-1980s when both were in Pakistan to support guerrillas fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Born to an upper-class Cairo family, Zawahri trained as a doctor and surgeon.
In a video message posted on the Internet on June 8, Zawahri said al Qaeda would continue to fight. He called this year’s Arab uprisings a disaster for Washington because, he said, they would remove Arab leaders who were the “agents of America.”
He also pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, calling him “Emir of the Believers.”
Reporting by Sara Anabtawi, Isabel Coles and Cairo bureau, William Maclean in London, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Eric Walsh