CAIRO – With Osama bin Laden dead, U.S. authorities are training their sights on his top deputy, an Egyptian surgeon-turned-jihadist whose tactical acumen will be tested as al-Qaida struggles to regroup.
The U.S. government has a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahri, 59, who’s presumed to be bin Laden’s successor – though al-Qaida has yet to make a public announcement since U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan early Monday and shot bin Laden dead.
Political analysts say Zawahri faces his biggest challenge yet: finding a way to restore al-Qaida’s relevance to Muslim causes while at the same time evading capture as the FBI’s new most-wanted terrorist.
Most students of militant groups believe Zawahri has been the de facto leader of al-Qaida for the last several years while the bigger target – bin Laden – was on the run.
“Bin Laden was the symbol and the more charismatic figure, but Ayman Zawahri was the executive and the real leader,” said Hossam Tammam, an Egyptian professor who studies militant groups and has written extensively on the subject.
“He was the deeper and more effective leader of al-Qaida and, if nothing exceptional like his death or severe illness happens, Zawahri will head the network.”
Zawahri, whose militancy was hardened in brutal Egyptian prisons, comes across as dour and charmless in his many videos and audiotapes of the past several years.
But what Zawahri lacks in charm, he makes up for with a nimble mind that’s helped al-Qaida evolve into a global franchise operation with self-proclaimed members acting independently or with little direction from the official leadership.
U.S. authorities say he helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Zawahri is believed to be hiding in the rugged terrain along the Afghan-Pakistan border.