May 4, 2011
Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of US Navy Seals and CIA operatives during the May 1 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is a major blow to al Qaeda and its global network. Bin Laden was the founder of al Qaeda, and has served as an inspiration to jihadists worldwide. His connections to various terror leaders, both inside and outside of al Qaeda’s sphere, were vast. And he was a rainmaker for al Qaeda: his ties in Saudi Arabia and in the Persian Gulf allowed him to tap the Golden Chain, the wealthy financial supporters of al Qaeda who to this day remain untouched.
Al Qaeda will have a difficult time replacing bin Laden due to his stature within the terror organization. Bin Laden served as a unifying force; he remained above the petty politics and infighting that naturally occur in any organization.
Al Qaeda will need to choose a successor. This will prove to be difficult, as its top leaders have gone to ground, fearful that they are the next targets of a US raid. According to the Asia Times, al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or executive council, will direct the terror group until a successor is chosen.
The next leader may provide insight on the strategic direction al Qaeda will take to achieve its end goal of establishing a global Islamic caliphate. A major question with the group’s leaders has been: Which strategy should al Qaeda pursue to achieve the end state of a global caliphate? Under bin Laden, al Qaeda chose to attack both the “near enemy” – Muslim governments – and the “far enemy” – the US and Western governments that backed the Muslim governments. By attacking the far enemy, al Qaeda hoped to drive the US from the Middle East. Al Qaeda also established regional affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to carry out attacks against both the near and far enemies, and has actively recruited Muslims in Western countries to form cells to support and execute operations. Will the next leader continue Osama’s strategy, or direct more efforts against either the near or the far enemies?
Five top al Qaeda leaders are the front-runners to lead the terror group. None of these leaders possess all of the qualities that made been Laden so successful. Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, is the obvious front-runner. Abu Yahya al Libi, a chief ideologue who has become a star in al Qaeda, may also be in consideration. Saif al Adel, the strategic mastermind who until now has operated in the shadows from Iran, is also thought to be in contention for the top job. Sa’ad bin Laden, one of Osama’s many sons, is thought to have been groomed by his father to lead the terror group. And Ilyas Kashmiri is also considered a darkhorse to take over al Qaeda’s network.
But Zawahiri has also been a polarizing figure in the jihadist movement. His criticism of Hamas for dealing with the West and Israel, for instance, has created fissures within the global jihadist movement. Zawahiri also does not possess the charisma of bin Laden; Zawahiri is more combative, while bin Laden was diplomatic and calm.
Saif al Adel is a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who has emerged over the past decade as al Qaeda’s top military planner and strategist. He has been likened to al Qaeda’s version of a defense minister or military chief of staff. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, al Adel was among the hundreds of al Qaeda leaders and operatives who fled with their families to the safety of Iran.
While in Iran, he was placed in the protective custody of the Qods Force, the notorious special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. But protective custody did not interfere with his ability to plot attacks. Al Adel, along with Sa’ad bin Laden, planned and executed terror attacks. Al Adel also kept in touch with al Qaeda’s top leaders and wrote up long-term strategic plans.
Al Adel leads a cadre of other senior al Qaeda leaders who sheltered in Iran, including Suliaman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden’s former spokesman; and Abu Hafs al Mauritania (Mahfouz Ould al Walid), a top al Qaeda theologian, Islamic scholar, and operational planner. Earlier this year, the three wrote a critique of al Qaeda that said the terror group was alienating outside jihadist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and should seek to be more inclusive. But, as al Adel has operated below the radar, it is unclear if he possesses the charisma required to be the face of al Qaeda.
Abu Yahya al Libi
Abu Yahya al Libi, a top leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, served a military commander in Afghanistan until his capture by the US military during 2003. He rose to prominence in al Qaeda after he escaped from Bagram Prison in Afghanistan in the summer of 2005, along with senior al Qaeda operatives Abu Nasir al Qahtani, Abu Abdallah al Shami, and Omar Farouq. Al Libi is the only member of the notorious “Bagram Four” active in al Qaeda. Two of his fellow escapees have been killed and another has been captured since the 2005 escape. Al Libi’s escape and subsequent mocking of the US in propaganda tapes has made him a star in al Qaeda.
Al Libi has become one of al Qaeda’s most prolific propagandists. He has appeared in more al Qaeda propaganda tapes since 2006 than any other member of the terror group, including bin Laden and Zawahiri. He has weighed in on some of the most controversial and important issues on al Qaeda’s agenda. He was the first al Qaeda leader to urge the Pakistani people and the Army to turn against then-President Pervez Musharraf’s regime after the military stormed the radical Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad.
Al Libi, like Zawahiri, is also considered to be a combative leader. He has chastised Islamists who have denounced al Qaeda’s methods and ideology. He urged clerics to come fight against Americans and NATO and to wage real jihad instead of criticizing al Qaeda.
Sa’ad and his younger brother Hamza, are thought to have been groomed by Osama to take control of al Qaeda in the event of his death or capture. Sa’ad is considered a senior leader and an operational commander in al Qaeda. Along with Saif al Adel, Sa’ad was involved in the 2003 bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is known to shelter in Iran and to move back and forth across the Iranian border with Pakistan.
Sa’ad has served as a link to Iran. In September 2008, he facilitated communications between Ayman al Zawahiri and Qods Force after the deadly attack on the US embassy in Yemen. Sa’ad made “key decisions for al Qaeda and was part of a small group of al Qaeda members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran,” according to the US Treasury report that designated him as a terrorist on Jan. 16, 2009. “As of September 2008, it was possible that Sa’ad bin Laden was no longer in Iranian custody,” the Treasury reported.
Ilyas Kashmiri is the notorious Pakistani terror commander with a long pedigree in the field of jihad. He cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then waged terror attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir as a commander in the Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, where he formed Brigade 313 . He has since risen into the top tier of al Qaeda’s leadership cadre, as an experienced and dangerous military commander who directs attacks in South Asia while also aiding terror attacks against the West.
Kashmiri is considered by US intelligence to be one of al Qaeda’s most effective commanders. He serves as the operational chief of the Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, an al Qaeda-linked terror group that operates in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The Harkat-ul Jihad Islami was designated as a terrorist entity by the US in 2010, and Kashmiri was added to the list of global terrorists for his role in leading HUJI as well as for his links to al Qaeda. Kashmiri has taken control of the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army, and has planned an directed a series of complex suicide and conventional attacks on US, Afghan, and Pakistani installations in South Asia.
Kahsmiri is not as well known or plugged into al Qaeda’s global network as the other prospective successors, but he has a major presence in South and Central Asia, where al Qaeda has invested considerable resources.