“Zawahiri is obviously the presumed successor, but there are strong indications that he is not popular within certain circles of the group,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Saturday in a briefing at the Pentagon. “It is, of course, anathema to al-Qaeda to hold free and fair elections. If free and fair elections [were conducted], Zawahiri would most likely have a fight on his hands.”
Another U.S. official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, noted that while many al-Qaeda sub-commanders have been killed in recent years, there are alternatives to Zawahiri.
Among them are two veteran Libyan jihadis, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi. “Atiyah or Abu Yahya are rumored to be more personable than Zawahiri and have certainly earned their operational chops,” the official said.
Al-Qaeda’s central organization is formally governed by a shura, or leadership council. Most of its members had sworn an oath to serve under bin Laden. It remains to be seen whether Zawahiri or his rivals will be able to command the same loyalty.
U.S. officials are hoping that the trail that led them to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, will also take them to Zawahiri, who has been al-Qaeda’s operational commander for years. Over the past week, the CIA has been trying to exploit an intelligence windfall of materials collected from bin Laden’s compound, including possible information on the whereabouts of other al-Qaeda figures. U.S. officials briefed on the effort have hinted that Zawahiri is among those being pursued aggressively, and the chairman of the House intelligence committee said last week that he believed “we’re hot on the trail.”
Zawahiri’s stature as a theoretician and intellectual is unquestioned in Islamist radical circles. He lacks bin Laden’s personal magnetism, however, and has alienated many allies with his uncompromising leadership style and prickly personality.
“He is the master ideologue of the global jihad,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics who has studied Zawahiri and the history of al-Qaeda. “There is no one else who has his weight or intellect. He is a giant among the remaining figures in al-Qaeda. But there is no doubt Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a divisive figure.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zawahiri gradually became the most visible face of al-Qaeda, issuing dozens of video and audio propaganda statements while bin Laden receded into the shadows, surfacing only occasionally to remind the world that he remained at large.