“I think we should be mindful that this announcement by Al Qaeda reminds us that despite having suffered a huge loss with the killing of bin Laden and a number of others,” Gates said, “Al Qaeda seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed, and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them.”
The Pentagon has also emphasized that the new leader of Al Qaeda, believed (for what it’s worth, considering where bin Laden was found) to be hiding in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, should expect to be the target of a robust and ongoing manhunt.
“I’m not sure it’s a position anybody should aspire to, under the circumstances,” Gates said.
The conventional wisdom, however, is that it’s a position that the ambitious Zawahiri has long coveted.
“He has been sort of a climber, not only within Al Qaeda but in the larger jihadist movement,” says Brian Fishman, terrorism research fellow at the New American Foundation. “He’s attached himself to a rising star within the organization – bin Laden – and that’s how he’s seen, as somebody who isn’t always piously committed, but brings with him a sense of personal aggrandizement.”
That kind of mercenary approach, however, can have practical advantages, Mr. Fishman says. In the internal debate about whether Al Qaeda should maintain a strict ideological litmus test for members, or “get as many people into the tent as possible,” Zawahiri is a member of the latter camp, Fishman says, which could translate into more Al Qaeda followers.