THE WORLDPOST
06/16/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2011

Al-Zawahiri: New Al Qaeda Leader Obvious Choice, But Strategy Remains Unclear

The choice of al Qaeda's longtime number-two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to replace the late Osama bin Laden as leader of the terror group did not surprise terrorism experts though it remains unclear how its tactics will change.

His succession was expected but the six-week delay prompted speculation of a power struggle, as the old guard was pitted against younger acolytes. And the 59-year-old Egyptian's reputation as a sullen technocrat with little charisma further fueled doubts that he commanded enough loyalty or had enough appeal to continue attracting new recruits.

Some fear that al-Zawahiri is likely to plan new strikes to demonstrate his effectiveness.

"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," said Royal Swedish Defense College terrorism analyst Magnus Ranstorp.

But this morning former CIA director Michael Hayden emphasized that al Qaeda may focus more on the "near enemy" in the Mideast than on the "far enemy" -- the U.S. -- under al-Zawahiri's leadership, reports HuffPost's Andrea Stone. "What we could see under the change of leadership is al Qaeda being a little less interested in reaching deep, that's us, and a lot more energetic trying now to take advantage of the Arab awakening and moving into that space. That fits al-Zawahiri's world view much more comfortably than it did bin Laden's."

Others, such as Bruce Hoffman, professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, contend that any attacks will stem more from al Qaeda's need to assert its continuing relevance rather than for al-Zawahiri to prove his leadership skills. "The media likes to portray him as bin Laden's number two, but in point of fact, they were really co-equals and that counts for a lot. He was the obvious choice."

With the formality and neutral tone of a corporate press release, al Qaeda recently made the al-Zawahiri announcement in a statement posted on jihadist Internet forums:

“The general command of Al Qaeda, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri has assumed the responsibility of the leadership of the group."

The decision indicates a new hierarchal structure for the organization, making it less open to innovative ideas or strategies. "Revolutionaries can be quite conservative," says Douglas Macdonald, associate professor of political science at Colgate. "They've very hierarchal there. The father is the father of the nation. And some of those younger leaders, like [American-born radical cleric Anwar] al-Awlaki, don't have the heft or the seniority. You wouldn't turn to just another guy. This was Biden to Obama."

Though al-Zawahiri has been al Qaeda's longtime operational leader--he helped plan the 9/11 attacks and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania--he has a reputation for being argumentative and haughty. His reputed unpopularity was also due to his role as bin Laden's enforcer, says Professor Macdonald. "He was forced to deliver all the bad news from bin Laden. We intercepted a letter from him to [al Qaeda's leader in Iraq Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi telling him to stop trying to instigate a civil war in Iraq because those efforts were backfiring."

Al-Zawahiri, who has a $25 million bounty on his head from the FBI, has reportedly been hiding in the mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is a trained surgeon and became bin Laden's adviser and physician shortly after merging his Egyptian Islamic Jihad group with al Qaeda in 1998. Back in the 1980s, a fellow member of his Islamic Jihad group in Egypt mocked him, saying, "No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader." He also argued with anti-Soviet mujahideen Abdullah Azzam over the extent of the global jihad.

In addition to functioning as al Qaeda's organizational leader, al-Zawahiri reportedly talked the leader into use suicide attackers, convincing bin Laden by explaining that such fighters would be considered martyrs.

Soon after bin Laden's death, al-Zawahiri released a video eulogy in which he also praised the revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia.

We must continue on [bin Laden's] path of jihad to expel the invaders from the land of Muslims and to purify it from injustice.

The man who terrified America in his life will continue to terrify it after his death. You will continue to be troubled by his famous vow: You shall not dream of security until we enjoy it and until you depart the Muslims' lands.

America is not facing an individual or a group, but a rebelling nation, which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadist renaissance.

The delay in announcing his succession also led to reports about infighting between al-Zawahiri's Egyptian contingent and al Qaeda members of other nationalities. The Saudi al-Watan newspaper even quoted a source claiming that al-Zawahiri and his allies tipped off the Americans to bin Laden's hiding place, so that he could take over the organization.