Al-Qaeda’s ‘Shadow Leader’ Finally Emerges As Head Honcho

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In an investigation for TIME, Tim McGirk details Al-Qaeda’s new chief: an Egyptian doctor who some report has been wielding the true power in the terrorist organization for several years. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s former deputy, does not look like a fearsome terrorist leader with his large wire-framed glasses and scraggly beard, but is known for an abrasive personality and uncompromising leadership style. Zawahiri is not universally liked in the militant organization, and the six-week period between bin Laden’s death and Zawahiri’s announced succession could indicate an internal struggle within the group. In fact, TIME reported on rumors that fellow-Egyptian Saif al-Adel would be the new chief terrorist. But for now, the blowhard physician is Saif’s titular boss. McGirk writes:

Despite the Egyptian’s fulsome eulogy for his boss earlier this month, the take-charge deputy was often at odds with bin Laden. Hothaifa Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian cleric who spent time in Peshawar, Pakistan, and who maintains communication with some fighters of al-Qaeda told TIME in Amman that by 2006, al-Zawahiri and his comrades were “isolating bin Laden with the excuse of protecting him.” He adds, “Nobody I met liked al-Zawahiri, but he is the guy moving things.” Azzam also says that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri quarreled in 2007 over the choice of a new military commander after the previous one was killed. “Al-Zawahiri got his way and bin Laden was not happy.” The new commander is thought to be either Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando, or a Libyan, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

Al-Zawahiri’s abrasiveness is one factor to explain why he was not automatically picked to replace bin Laden by al-Qaeda’s ruling council, the so-called General Command. Another is his lack of combat experience. A former surgeon and ideologue, al-Zawahiri has a reputation for leading from the rear. “He’s called the ‘Shadow Leader,'” says Azzam. Furthermore, a new, younger generation of combat-hardened jihadi leaders from Libya and Yemen are rising through the ranks, and their utterances on the Internet seem to have far greater impact than al-Zawahiri’s oft-repeated rants against the Americans and the Jews.

Read the full story here.