Al-Qaida Chooses New Leader

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian eye doctor who long served as Osama bin Laden's deputy, has been officially chosen as al-Qaida's new leader. Zawahiri was already the group's operational commander and main spokesman, and he was widely expected to succeed Osama bin Laden. Some al-Qaida members have complained that Zawahiri is uninspiring and divisive as a leader, and terrorism experts say he will need to demonstrate that he can direct the terror network as skillfully as bin Laden did.

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Al-Qaida has chosen a replacement for Osama bin Laden. The organization's new leader is Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's longtime deputy. The Egyptian eye doctor has served as al-Qaida's operational commander and spokesman and was widely seen as a logical successor.

But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, six weeks have passed since bin Laden was killed, and some experts wonder if the delay in naming a new leader means that Zawahiri faced some competition.

TOM GJELTEN: As the official number two, Zawahiri was set to take over Al-Qaida after bin Laden's death, but his selection had to be ratified by the group's leadership council. Zawahiri may even have felt the need to campaign for the position.

(Soundbite of video)

Dr. AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: He took it upon himself, for example, to eulogize bin Laden in this video released last week. The sheikh has departed, Zawahiri said, may God have mercy on him.

Zawahiri, who will turn 60 this weekend, is clearly the most prominent al-Qaida figure now that bin Laden is gone, the only one with a $25 million bounty on his head.

He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when he was just 15. Exceptionally religious, he has a callous on his forehead from having prostrated himself in prayer so often. He is seen as a skilled organizer of terrorist cells. And it's possible that the delay in officially naming him as the new al-Qaida leader was due simply to how hard it was to get the approval of other al-Qaida leaders at a time when the organization is under attack.

But it could also be Zawahiri faced some opposition. Several al-Qaida members have questioned his fitness to lead. He is said to be abrasive in his management style, and he is an Egyptian in a movement dominated by Gulf Arabs.

In any case, Zawahiri does now have al-Qaida's official backing. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made that point today at the Pentagon.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think he's got some challenges, but I think it's a reminder that they are still out there, and we still need to keep after them.

GJELTEN: One question is whether Zawahiri will be a different kind of al-Qaida leader than bin Laden was. Terrorism expert Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution notes that he's more of an ideologue - writing books and making lots of public statements - whereas bin Laden kept a fairly low profile.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): Zawahiri is probably someone we're going to hear from more. But while he is a thinker, it's a mistake to assume he's not also a doer. This is a man who's been involved in a lot of nasty terrorist planning. So he's willing to mix it up and get right in there. And I think it would be a mistake to underestimate this guy.

GJELTEN: Zawahiri himself promises al-Qaida will not be slowed by bin Laden's disappearance. In that eulogy video, he said America is not facing an individual or a group but a rebelling nation.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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