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The future of Al Qaeda and its likely leader

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief strategist, is poised to take command of a group that has been in decline for years.

This June 2005 TV grab shows Ayman al-Zawahiri delivering a speech.

Al-Jazeera/AFP

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Ayman al-Zawahiri has long been Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue, distilling Osama bin Laden’s ethereal vision into concrete action.

Now, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 figure is poised to become successor to the man who meant everything to Al Qaeda – founder, fundraiser, charismatic cheerleader.

But Mr. Zawahiri, a surgeon and the scion of an upper-class Egyptian family, strikes many as haughty and droning with little of the ability Mr. bin Laden had to inspire. Irascible, he is given to fueling obscure ideological conflicts within jihadi ranks; Al Qaeda itself reportedly split into two factions before bin Laden’s death, with Zawahiri in charge of the spinoff, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Three decades ago, a member of Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad group recognized his lack of leadership, reportedly telling him, “No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader.”

The solemn Zawahiri, however, has weathered countless obstacles – bombing raids, assassination attempts, brutal imprisonment, and dissension within his own ranks – to wage war on America and its allies.

After formally joining forces with bin Laden in 1998, he steered the group’s overall strategy through the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 US sailors in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraqi civil war stoked by an Al Qaeda offshoot. In recent years, he delivered more audio and videotaped recordings than bin Laden himself.

A lack of popularity is unlikely to stall his plans for Al Qaeda’s future now, even if he faces an uphill battle to preserve the terrorist group that has been in decline and decentralizing for years.

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