Terrorism experts say that Ayman al-Zawahiri, currently the No. 2 of al-Qaida, is well-positioned to take the helm of the terrorist group. This picture is from an online video released on Nov. 28, 2008.
The last time al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was on center stage was almost 30 years ago, when the international media captured his rants from a cage at the back of an Egyptian courtroom. The cameras caught him shouting about the torture he and other prisoners suffered at the hands of Egyptian jailers. And he started the group chanting, "We are Muslims. We are Muslims."
Zawahiri's prison time in Egypt not only set him against the regime there, but also marked the beginning of his lifelong hatred of the United States. When he eventually joined forces with Osama bin Laden, he passed that enmity along. So, as Zawahiri prepares to take the reins of al-Qaida's central operation, he, at some level, is about to take charge of an organization he helped create in the first place.
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, said while Zawahiri has a reputation for being prickly and dogmatic, he could emerge as an even stronger leader than bin Laden.
"Unlike bin Laden, he had the street cred at having been a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist from the time he was a teenager," Hoffman said. "OK, he's not as telegenic as bin Laden. He lacks bin Laden's charisma. He doesn't have bin Laden's mellifluous voice, but he still is a very powerful figure within the movement."
Egyptian Saif al-Adel, in an image released by the FBI.
Egyptian Saif al-Adel, in an image released by the FBI. AP
While Zawahiri seems the obvious choice to pick up where bin Laden left off, other key members of the group also could rise to the fore.
"It's important to remember that bin Laden's vision was always for there to be 1,000 bin Ladens, not just one Osama bin Laden," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "So there is an opportunity here for many individuals inside the organization to step forward and carry forth the al-Qaida narrative."
Bin Laden had talked about creating a base for a broader Islamist movement as if it were a mantra. He wanted an organization that didn't need him to survive. That's why, before he died, he had tried to put a handful of rising stars in place.
The first is Saif al-Adel, who is believed to be a member of al-Qaida's military committee.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a frame grab from a video posted on the Internet in November 2006.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a frame grab from a video posted on the Internet in November 2006. AFP/Getty Images
A former colonel in the Egyptian special forces, he rather famously spent nine years under house arrest in Iran. It wasn't until late last year that he returned to Pakistan to fight with al-Qaida.
"He's a seasoned operator, he has experience, he has the bona fides within the organization," said Nelson, running down Adel's resume. "He's been with al-Qaida for many years, and that's critical to minimize the effect of losing bin Laden."
Then there's Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, who released an Internet video two months ago calling on young men to join the fight in Libya. He called it a religious war, a true jihad.
Al-Libi is a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, so he is battle-tested. He could provide al-Qaida with not just operational experience, but also an entre into Libya.
U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in an image released by the SITE Intelligence Group in November 2010.
And there's one more rising star: radical Internet imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The U.S.-born cleric, who was linked to the Christmas Day bombing attempt two years ago, is a member of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. Although he isn't connected to al-Qaida's core operation, he has had some impact. He has a tremendous Internet following, particularly in the U.S. and Europe.
Bin Laden left behind a decentralized organization that, Hoffman said, is going to complicate efforts to fight it.
"The biggest challenge we're going to have in the aftermath of this is the diversity and multiplicity of threats we're going to have to contend with," Hoffman said. "That's really rather different than had been the case had we killed bin Laden in Tora Bora eight or nine years ago in the White Mountains."
That suggests that even though bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida has a good chance to survive.