Al-Zawahri succeeds bin Laden as al-Qaida leader

CAIRO (AP) — Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, a fiery ideologue who is known for his deep hatred of the West and helped plan the 9/11 attacks, has taken control of al-Qaida after the death last month of the terror network’s founder, the group said Thursday.

Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian-born surgeon, has been credited with bringing tactical and organizational cunning to al-Qaida, which has found itself increasingly decentralized and prone to internal disputes following its expulsion from Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

The move also comes at a time the terror network is struggling for relevance as a wave of Arab uprisings has threatened to leave it marginalized.

Al-Zawahri pledged earlier this month to avenge the U.S. raid on May 2 that killed bin Laden, the al-Qaida founder and mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and to continue the terror network’s campaign of attacks against the U.S. and other Western interests.

“The general command of al-Qaida, after completing consultations, decided that the sheik doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahri take the responsibility and be in charge of the group,” said a statement purportedly by al-Qaida and posted on militant websites, including several known to be affiliated with the group.

Al-Qaida gave no details about the selection process for bin Laden’s successor but said that it was the best tribute to the memory of its “martyrs.”

Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday and has a $25 million bounty on his head, has been behind the use of suicide bombings and the independent militant cells that have become the network’s trademarks. But U.S. intelligence officials have said that some al-Qaida members find al-Zawahri to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden’s populist appeal.

Because of that, U.S. intelligence will watch for signs Zawahri is a leader in name only, with affiliates branching out even more on their own, said knowledgable U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on intelligence matters on condition of anonymity.

They noted, for example, that communications captured in the attack on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound showed that the Yemeni branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, argued against bin Laden’s idea of spectacular attacks in the U.S., and in favor of smaller attacks. With the change in leadership, the Yemenis may have their way.

Zawahri also faces significant challenges in promoting al-Qaida’s agenda of a religiously led state spanning the Muslim world after finding itself sidelined in the wake of popular revolts that have been driven by aspirations for Western-style democracy instead.

The Pakistani Taliban welcomed the appointment of al-Zawahri as the new al-Qaida chief and vowed to fight alongside the terror group against the U.S. and “other infidel forces” around the world.

“We share the same path with al-Qaida. We are allies,” Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Ahsan said his group will continue to carry out attacks in retaliation for bin Laden’s death. “The revenge will continue,” he said.

Al-Zawahri has been in hiding for nearly 10 years and is widely believed to be near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He has appeared in dozens of videos and audiotapes in recent years, increasingly becoming the face of al-Qaida as bin Laden kept a lower profile.

Most of his pronouncements on the videos and audiotapes show him to be a man consumed by deep hatred for the West, particularly the United States, and Israel.

Al-Zawahri had been considered the most likely successor because of his longtime collaboration with bin Laden. Analysts had said that few were likely to challenge the al-Qaida deputy leader for the top spot despite some reservations.

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