CAIRO – Osama Bin Laden‘s longtime second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has taken control of Al Qaeda, the group declared Thursday, marking the ascendancy of a man driven by hatred of the United States who helped plan the 9/11 attacks.
Al-Zawahri is considered the organizational brain of the terror group, highly skilled at planning and logistics. Analysts said he could set his sights on a spectacular attack and on building up Al Qaeda’s already robust presence in Yemen to establish his leadership credentials.
His fanaticism and the depth of his hatred for the United States and Israel are likely to define Al Qaeda’s actions under al-Zawahri’s tutelage. In a 2001 treatise that offered a glimpse of his violent thoughts, al-Zawahri set down Al Qaeda’s strategy: to inflict “as many casualties as possible” on the Americans.
“Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task,” he wrote. “Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar.”
Al-Zawahri’s hatred of America was also deeply personal: His wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks.
The Egyptian-born al-Zawahri had been expected to inherit Al Qaeda’s leadership, although the delay in announcing his succession led some counterterrorism analysts to speculate about a power struggle following the May 2 killing of Bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan.
“The general command of Al Qaeda, after completing consultations, declares Abu Mohammed, Ayman al-Zawahri, God help him, the one leading the group,” said a statement attributed to Al Qaeda and posted on militant websites, including several known to be affiliated with the group.
It gave no details about the selection process but said the choice of al-Zawahri was the best tribute to the memory of the group’s “martyrs.”
“As we did both seek to capture and succeed in killing Bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri,” he said at a news conference in Washington.
Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday and has a $25 million bounty on his head, takes control of Al Qaeda at a time when it is struggling to stay relevant in the face of popular uprisings across the Arab world that are demanding Western-style democracy instead of the pan-Islamic nation sought by Islamists.
Still, the lawlessness gripping Yemen, a poor Arabian Peninsula nation, offers Al Qaeda a rare opportunity to gain a strategic foothold in the Arab world, bringing it a step closer to the ability to export its extremist brand of Islam to the region.