New al-Qa'ida leader could launch major attack on West
AYMAN al-Zawahiri, the new leader of al-Qa'ida, could launch a major attack on the West as he tries to stamp his authority on the embattled movement, according to counter-terrorism experts.
Al-Zawahiri was named as the new chief yesterday, taking over at a time when the terrorist network is struggling for relevance, upstaged by a wave of uprisings across the Middle East.
The movement has also been rocked by the killing of Osama bin Laden last month and there are fears that the new leader will launch a bloody campaign to attract and inspire the next generation of militants.
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism analyst at the Royal Swedish Defence College, said al-Zawahiri's elevation was no surprise. "He doesn't have the same iconic status or personality as Bin Laden," he said. "He will focus on attacking the West in a big way. To avenge Bin Laden's death, but also to make himself . . . even more effective and relevant."
Al-Zawahiri, who will turn 60 on Sunday, was born into an upper middle-class Egyptian family of doctors and academics. He had already begun his descent into extremism by the time he qualified as a doctor, having joined the Muslim Brotherhood in his teens.
He went on to become leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which eventually merged with Bin Laden's growing al-Qa'ida movement in 1998.
Today he carries a $25m (€17.65m) price on his head and is believed to run al-Qa'ida operations from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. He was confirmed as the new leader by a message posted on militant websites, following a six-week consultation process.
"The general command of al-Qa'ida, after completing consultations, decided that the sheikh doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahri take the responsibility and be in charge of the group," said the statement released by al-Qa'ida.
Earlier this month he released a videotaped eulogy to his former mentor, in which he warned America that it still faced an international movement of Muslim extremists intent on its destruction.
"Today, praise God, America is not facing an individual, a group or a faction," he said, wearing a white robe and turban with a rifle resting against the wall behind him. "It is facing a nation that is in revolt, having risen from its lethargy to a renaissance of jihad."
The lengthy process to name al-Zawahiri as leader raised questions about internal divisions and his confrontational style of leadership. Now al-Qa'ida watchers will be waiting to see if he can unite al-Qa'ida's factions across South Asia and the Middle East, and whether he can emulate the charismatic Saudi leader he replaces.
Leah Farrall, a counter-terrorism analyst, said: "Al-Qa'ida was Bin Laden's organisation and so there is a need for whoever runs it to tap into his legacy and not be seen to be turning away from it, particularly in the short term." (© Daily Telegraph, London)