Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri appears on video but doesn’t assert leadership

Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command appeared in a new video Wednesday that eulogizes Osama bin Laden but was seen by U.S. intelligence analysts as evidence that the terrorist network hasn’t anointed a new leader.

The video is the first recorded message issued by Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who has long served as al-Qaeda’s top deputy, since bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military assault on a compound in Pakistan early last month.

Zawahiri praises bin Laden in the recording as an ongoing source of inspiration for Muslims and warns the United States that it will face reprisals for the al-Qaeda chief’s demise, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online postings by militant groups.

But U.S. officials said they were struck by the absence of any assertion by Zawahiri that he would assume control of the terrorist network he helped found.

“It is very significant that Zawahiri did not come out and say he is taking over leadership of the group,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the views of analysts at the CIA and other intelligence services. “This suggests there are still disagreements within al-Qaeda about who its next leader should be.”

Reports surfaced last month that another Egyptian, Saif al-Adel, had been selected by al-Qaeda’s inner circle to replace bin Laden. But U.S. officials have cast doubt on that claim.

The new video opens with an older clip of bin Laden before switching to footage of Zawahiri speaking in front of a brown backdrop with a rifle at his side. At one point, he criticizes U.S. claims that bin Laden was given an appropriate Islamic burial at sea. “What Islam is this?” he says. “The Islam of America, or the Islam of Obama?”

U.S. officials also said Wednesday that the CIA has been unable to confirm reports that another senior al-Qaeda figure, Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on Saturday.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.

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