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Al-Awlaki’s affiliate has been described as the greatest threat to the U.S. and he has been directly tied to numerous plots, including the Fort Hood shooting, the Christmas Day underwear bomb plot, the plot to explode cargo planes using modified ink cartridges and possibly 9/11. He has inspired many other plots and has proven to be skilled at recruiting Westerners. Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann says his preaching “surface[s] in every single homegrown terrorism investigation.”
Al-Awlaki has also not committed Zarqawi’s mistake by turning the locals against him in Yemen, though he has an advantage by being a member of a powerful tribe. His forces have asserted themselves as a result of the anti-government uprising but have brought stability by “curbing tribal banditry.” As one rival tribal chief, put it, “They made it safe. They act nice and distribute books.”
Two individuals are going to come to the forefront as operational leaders: Saif al-Adel and Ilyas Kashmiri. Saif al-Adel was a colonel in the Egyptian special forces and has been tied to various plots, including the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and the bombings in Riyadh in May 2003, which he ordered from Iran. Al-Adel was then placed on house arrest and he complained about the tight restrictions the Iranian regime placed upon him. He was released from Iran last year and became Al-Qaeda’s chief of international operations. He is believed to have played a leading role in the cargo plane bomb plot.
He has been reported to have opposed the 9/11 attacks and criticized his colleagues for “random” attacks and failing to focus on “the greater objective…the establishment of a[n] [Islamic] state.” He favors a strategy designed to wear out the group’s enemies. The Telegraph wrote that “The new attrition strategy marks the triumph of a minority faction within al-Qaeda who had opposed the 9/11 attacks, arguing that the inevitable U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan would cost the jihadist movement its only secure base.”
Ilyas Kashmiri has been called the “most effective, dangerous and successful guerilla leader in the world.” Not much information is publicly known about Ilyas Kashmiri’s opinion of Al-Qaeda’s strategy and tactics, but he was a commando in the Pakistani military and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, losing a finger and an eye. He is now a top commander and was involved in plans to carry out Mumbai-style attacks in Europe last year. He was also in communication with a Muslim cab driver in Chicago currently being prosecuted for trying to assist Al-Qaeda, who described Kashmiri as the “main key, after Osama Bin Laden.”
One strong indication of where Al-Qaeda is headed will be the role of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, who used to be the group’s chief spokesperson but was put on house arrest in Iran. He has published a book called “Twenty Guidelines on the Path of Jihad,” where he ridicules his Al-Qaeda colleagues without mentioning them by name. He condemned the “culture of killing and destruction” and like Saif al-Adel, said jihadists need to focus on “securing a better life for all who live with Islam and in the Islamic state.”
Zawahiri’s ascension may lead to a struggle within Al-Qaeda, and if he cannot rally the other officials around him, he may become the leader in name only as he competes for influence and control and others argue for a different strategy. All of these leaders remain committed to the goals of Osama Bin Laden, but these differences in opinion and a possible clashing of egos could result in a fracturing of Al-Qaeda.
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