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Al-Qaida Officially Shifts Power to Ayman al-Zawahri

June 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the heir apparent takes the top job at al-Qaida.

It’s been 45 days since U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan. And, ever since, one question has been: Who will lead al-Qaida now? The answer came today, bin Laden’s long-time deputy.

A statement posted on an Islamist website said, “The general leadership of al-Qaida group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group.”

The new al-Qaida leader will turn 60 on Sunday and has been in hiding for many years. He’s on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list, with a $25 million bounty on his head, and since going underground has been seen only on videos, repeatedly urging worldwide jihad.

The latest message came last week in a eulogy to bin Laden.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI, Al-Qaida leader (through translator): The man has terrified America when he was alive and he is terrifying it even when he is dead, to the extent that they denied him a tomb.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new top leader was born in Egypt and lived in this family home in Cairo. He was trained as a doctor, but was radicalized early on.

When assassins killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, al-Zawahri was one of hundreds of Islamic militants put on trial. He spent three years in prison, then left Egypt. He met Osama bin Laden in the mid-1980s as the two helped fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Al-Zawahri became bin Laden’s personal adviser and physician and ultimately the deputy leader, often described as the group’s chief tactician. He helped plan the Sept. 11 attack and, before that, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

Still, in Washington today, a State Department spokesperson played down the al-Qaida leadership announcement.

VICTORIA NULAND, State Department spokeswoman: We have seen the reports. What I would like to say today is, frankly, it barely matters who runs al-Qaida, because al-Qaida is a bankrupt ideology.

JEFFREY BROWN: That, of course, is what intelligence experts will now be watching, as al-Zawahri takes over an al-Qaida that’s become more globalized, with branches in many parts of the world.

In his June 8 message, he urged them on to new attacks. He vowed the U.S. killing of bin Laden will be met — quote — “blood for blood.”