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We’ll Hunt Down New al-Qaida Boss

Bespectacled doctor from prominent Egyptian family pioneered the use of suicide bombings; wife, 2 kids were killed by U.S. airstrike

Image: Ayman al-Zawahri
Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website on June 8, 2011. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The Associated Press, Reuters, and NBC News via MSNBC.com
Updated June 16, 2011

WASHINGTON — The United States is just as determined to hunt down and kill al-Qaida’s new chief as it did his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, Obama administration officials said on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s longtime second-in-command and now its top leader, does not have the “peculiar charisma” and operational experience of bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces last month. …

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that Zawahri — an Egyptian-born ideologue — remains high on the U.S. list of hunted militants.

“He and his organization still threaten us. And as we did seek to capture and kill — and succeed in killing — bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri,” Mullen told reporters.

Zawahri has taken over the leadership after the killing of bin Laden, the group said on Islamist websites on Thursday.

“The general leadership of al-Qaida group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group,” the Islamist website Ansar al-Mujahedeen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement. …

U.S. officials, in a rhetorical campaign that seemed designed to undercut the new al Qaeda leader, also raised doubts about whether Zawahri had the personality to emulate the unifying role played by bin Laden. …

The brains [link added] behind much of al-Qaida’s strategy, Ayman al-Zawahri vowed this month to press ahead with the group’s campaign against the United States and its allies.

“The general leadership of al-Qaida group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group,” the Islamist website Ansar al-Mujahedeen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement. …

The bespectacled al-Zawahri had been seen as bin Laden’s most likely successor after the man held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. was shot dead by U.S. commandos in Pakistan on May 2 [link added].

His whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan [link added]. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction. …

Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday, has long brought ideological fire, tactics and organizational skills to al-Qaida [link added]. The surgeon by training was first behind the use of the suicide bombings and independent terror cells that have become the network’s trademarks.

He has appeared in dozens of videos and audio tapes in recent years, increasingly becoming the face of al-Qaida as bin Laden kept a lower profile. …

U.S. intelligence officials have said that some al-Qaida members find al-Zawahri to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden’s appeal [link added].

“Bin Laden was regarded by his militant followers as a very charismatic leader,” Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, told msnbc.com [link added]. However, al-Zawahri was seen as “more of a strategist” who helped al-Qaida develop expertise in urban terrorism. …

Former U.S. intelligence officer Robert Ayers told Reuters that al-Zawahri was “a man lacking in charisma, a pale shadow of bin Laden.”

“He’s a grey bureaucrat, not a leader who can energize and rally the troops. The only thing his promotion will accomplish is to elevate his priority as a target for the U.S.”

Al-Zawahri faces significant challenges in promoting al-Qaida’s agenda following uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa — movements that were driven by a desire for democracy rather than a religious state.

In videotaped eulogy released earlier this month, al-Zawahri warned that America still faces an international community of Muslims that seek to destroy it. [link added]

Al-Zawahri is the son of an upper middle class Egyptian family of doctors and scholars. His father was a pharmacology professor at Cairo University’s medical school and his grandfather was the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, a premier center of religious study.

At the age of 15, he founded his first underground cell of high school students to oppose the Egyptian government. He continued his militant activities while earning his medical degree, later merging his cell with other militants to form Islamic Jihad.

Al-Zawahri served three years in an Egyptian prison before heading to Afghanistan in 1984 to fight the Soviets, where he linked up with bin Laden. Al-Zawahri later followed bin Laden to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, where they found a haven under the radical Taliban regime.

Soon after came the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, followed by the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen [link added], an attack al-Zawahri is believed to have helped organize.

In a 2001 treatise, he set down the long-term strategy for the jihadi movement — 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 for Americans has also become 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 September 11 attacks.

Al-Zawahri has worked in the years since to rebuild the organization’s leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border. Al-Qaida has inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.

The CIA came close to capturing him in 2003 and killing him in 2004 — both times in Pakistan. In December 2009, they thought they were again close only to be tricked by a double agent who blew himself up, killing seven agency employees and wounding six more in Khost, Afghanistan. …

Full story

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Related research reports

“Bin Laden’s Brain”: The Abrasively Negativistic Personality of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri
(Paper presented at the 26th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology Boston, July 6–9, 2003)

The Personality Profile of al-Qaida Leader Osama bin Laden
(Paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Berlin, July 16–19, 2002)

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1/21/2012 Update

After Drone Attack on al-Qaida Planner, is Zawahiri Next? Before the Election?


Ayman al Zawahiri, the longtime No. 2 to Osama bin Laden. (Photo credit: AFP – Getty Images file)

Rob Windrem
Senior investigative producer
NBC News
Jan. 20, 2012

With the successful Predator attack on al-Qaida operative Aslam Awan inside Pakistan, al-Qaida has lost, in the words of a senior U.S. official last night, “a senior external operations planner who was working on attacks against the West. His death reduces al-Qaida’s thinning bench of another operative devoted to plotting the death of innocent civilians.”

Awan is believed to have been somewhat close to Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida since shortly after Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1. Although U.S. officials would not place a number on Awan’s rank within al-Qaida, he was believed to have been involved in planning attacks, putting him in the high command.

But what of Zawahiri? The U.S. pursuit of him remains a high priority. (And his killing or capture would be regarded as a political coup for the Obama administration in a campaign year.) The U.S. has targeted Zawahiri five times by his own count, going back to the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. …

Evan Kohlmann, MSNBC analyst and counterterrorism consultant, reports that since bin Laden’s death, al-Qaida’s media arm has released eight recordings of al-Zawahiri, not all of which can be easily dated. … The most recent one came out on December 1 [2011]. In that video, Zawahiri boasted that al-Qaida had seized aid worker Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American, in Lahore last August. There’s been no proof of life regarding Weinstein since then. …

Full story

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Related reports on this site

Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden
In this 1998 file photo made available Friday, March 19, 2004, Ayman al-Zawahri, left, holds a press conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. (Photo credit: Mazhar Ali Khan / AP file)

Top al-Qaida Commander Killed (June 5, 2011)

First CIA Casualties in al-Qaida’s War on U.S. Avenged (May 29, 2011)

Osama bin Laden’s Successor, Interim Operational Leader Named (May 18, 2011)

Al-Qaida Leadership Roles (May 4, 2011)

Zawahiri Psychological Profile (May 3, 2011)

Osama bin Laden Dead (May 1, 2011)

Al-Qaida’s Third in Command Assassinated (June 2, 2010)

CIA Zawahiri Team Decimated (Jan. 4, 2010)

Zawahiri Lashes Out At Obama (June 3, 2009)

Zawahiri Blames U.S. Wars for Economic Crisis (Nov. 28, 2008)

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — June 15, 2010

Iraq-Afghanistan Casualties

One year ago today, I provided my weekly report of U.S. military deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Marine Sgt. Derek L. Shanfield, 22, Hastings, Pa., died June 8, 2010 when he stepped on an IED while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C., where his twin brother, Cpl. Devin Shanfield, serves in a different unit.

“He was truly amazing,” said his older brother, also a Marine, Sgt. Sydney Shanfield. “He rose up through the ranks very high in a very short time. He was basically a picture of perfection when it comes to being a Marine.”

That comes as no surprise to Tim Laurito, Derek Shanfield’s high school principal. Shanfield, of Hastings, Pa., stood out as a leader at Cambria Heights High School, Laurito said. He had the grades and aptitude to do whatever he wanted and graduated in 2006 near the top of his class, he said.

As a Marine squad leader, Shanfield went to Afghanistan ahead of his unit. He had been there only two weeks when he was killed during an attack. It happened on his first day on patrol, June 8.

Survivors include his parents, David and Pamela Shanfield; brothers Sydney and Devin Shanfield; and sisters, Jessica and Allison Shanfield.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — June 15, 2009

Britain Orders Iraq War Inquiry


Protesters hold placards with the words ‘No Cover Up’ and ‘No More Lies’ as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, June 15, 2009. (Photo credit: Shaun Curry / AFP — Getty Images)

Two years ago today, on June 15, 2009, I reported that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown authorized an inquiry into the Iraq war, but defied requests from bereaved families and campaigners to hold sessions in public.

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One Response to “Ayman Al-Zawahiri Succeeds Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida Leader”
  1. The Immelman Turn » Blog Archive » Zawahiri Psychological Profile Says:

    [...] Ayman Al-Zawahiri Succeeds Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida Leader (June 15, 2011) [...]

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