DUBAI - Veteran militant Ayman al-Zawahri has taken command of al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, an Islamist website said on Thursday, a move widely expected following his long years as second-in-command.
Bin Laden's lieutenant and the brains behind much of al Qaeda's strategy, Zawahri vowed this month to press ahead with al Qaeda's campaign against the United States and its allies.
"The general leadership of al Qaeda 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-Mujahideen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement.
The bespectacled Zawahri had been seen as bin Laden's most likely successor after the man held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington was shot dead by U.S. commandos in Pakistan 45 days ago.
His whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction.
Former U.S, intelligence officer Robert Ayers said Zawahri was "a man lacking in charisma, a pale shadow of bin Laden".
"He's a grey bureaucrat, not a leader who can energise and rally the troops. The only thing his promotion will accomplish is to elevate his priority as a target for the U.S."
Sajjan Gohel of Asia-Pacific Foundation security consultants said Zawahri had been in practical charge of al Qaeda for many years, but lacked bin Laden's presence and his "ability to unite the different Arab factions within the group".
Others see a more accomplished figure.
London-based journalist Abdel-Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996, said Zawahri was the "operational brains" behind al Qaeda and was respected in part because, he said, he had been bin Laden's chosen deputy.
"He managed to transform al Qaeda from being a small organisation focused on expelling U.S. interests from Saudi Arabia into a global organisation. The men he brought to al Qaeda from his own Egyptian Islamic Jihad group proved to be the instruments that drove al Qaeda's international push."
Believed to be in his late 50s, Zawahri met bin Laden in the mid-1980s when both were in Pakistan to support guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Born to an upper-class Cairo family, Zawahri trained as a doctor and surgeon.
"A worthy successor to a great predecessor. We ask God to grant you and your soldiers success for the victory of Islam and Muslims and to raise the banner of religion," a contributor to another Islamist militant website, As-Ansar, said in a posting.
In a video message posted on the internet on June 8, Zawahri said al Qaeda would continue to fight.
"The Sheikh (bin Laden) has departed, may God have mercy on him, to his God as a martyr, and we must continue on his path of jihad to expel the invaders from the land of Muslims and to purify it from injustice," Zawahri said.
Zawahri called this year's Arab uprisings a disaster for Washington because, he said, they would remove Arab leaders who were the corrupt "agents of America".
He also pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, calling him "Emir of the Believers".
The pledge, which repeats one made by bin Laden in the 1990s, was seen by analysts as an attempt to shore up al Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban, which sheltered the Arab-led group until U.S. attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 ended Taliban rule.
Western powers have demanded the Taliban cut all ties with al Qaeda.
"Today, and thanks be to God, America is not facing an individual or a group ... but a rebelling nation which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadist renaissance challenging it wherever it is," Zawahri said.
Among some Egyptians there was disdain at the news.
Karim Sabet, 34, a director of an oil and gas startup firm, said he was not surprised by the announcement.
"He's been the loyal no. 2 forever. Zawahri seems even more of a mad man than Osama was, and he'll want to prove himself by going on the attack soon. Another devil killing in the name of Islam. Disgusting." (Reporting by Sara Anabtawi, Isabel Coles and Cairo bureau, William Maclean in London; writing by Reed Stevenson; editing by Andrew Roche and Jan Harvey)
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