Al-Qaeda's Rising Leaders

What new strategy will they bring?

Al-Qaeda has confirmed the death of Osama Bin Laden but has not yet officially named a successor, indicating that the senior leadership is having difficulty communicating and possibly a reluctance to embrace Ayman al-Zawahiri as their new chief. New figures will fill the leadership gap left by Bin Laden’s absence and the inevitable arrests and deaths that will follow, but it is unclear if they can unite behind a common figurehead and strategy.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda, is likely to become Bin Laden’s official replacement. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has already pledged allegiance to him, but he has had conflicts with other members of Al-Qaeda and lacks the allure and charisma of Osama Bin Laden. As one senior U.S. intelligence official explained, “It is of course an anathema for Al-Qaeda to hold free and fair elections, but if such elections were held, al-Zawahiri would most likely have a fight on his hands.”

Should al-Zawahiri effectively take the reins the group, he will continue its current general strategy. He is, however, conscious of the blowback Al-Qaeda has gotten because of its attacks on Muslims. In a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then-head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, he criticized his tactics, specifically beheadings, attacks on Iraqi Shiites and the bombing of mosques. He said these methods were jeopardizing public support, without which the “movement would be crushed in the shadows.” He asked Zarqawi to stop using such tactics, rather than justifying them, because “this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it.” This rift indicates that al-Zawahiri would try to reduce tension with the Shiites and other Muslims and focus on Western targets instead of Muslim civilians.

Abu Yahya al-Al-Libi, a likely second-in-command for al-Zawahiri, has become Al-Qaeda’s most visible spokesperson. He is very charismatic, relatively young and is known both as a religious scholar and terrorist commander. It would be wise of al-Zawahiri to make al-Libi the head of the group but it is doubtful that he could swallow his pride enough to do so.

In July 2005, al-Libi escaped Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, catching the attention of his fellow extremists. He is the younger brother of the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is very significant given its criticism of Al-Qaeda’s strategy. In 2009, the group released a “corrective studies” that said Al-Qaeda must focus on fighting colonizers instead of other Muslims and should stop using violence to bring about Sharia law.

“Islam is a pragmatic religion, which acknowledges that war is a part of human life, but it doesn’t call for the use of violence for the sake of change and reforms,” the group said. It is unclear how much this thinking has influenced al-Libi, though he joined other Al-Qaeda members in criticizing Zarqawi’s viciousness.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen, rivals Al-Libi in influence and may overshadow him if his group keeps up the current pace of plots and inspiration of homegrown extremism. It is also possible that al-Awlaki will overshadow Al-Zawahiri if he is unable to effectively manage operations, communicate with senior leadership or use al-Libi to make up for his own weaknesses.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen, will overshadow him unless al-Zawahiri is able to pull off a major operation. Al-Awlaki has charisma, a huge Internet presence and served as the imam of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, giving him religious credibility.

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.