After bin Laden: who will lead al Qaeda?

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.

Ayman al Zawahiri

Ayman al Zawahiri.

Zawahiri co-founded al Qaeda with bin Laden in the 1990s, and has since served as bin Laden’s deputy. The merger of Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad with al Qaeda gave the terror group a cadre of experienced leaders and operatives; many of al Qaeda’s top leaders are Egyptians loyal to Zawahiri. He has served as the public face of al Qaeda over the past decade, appearing in numerous propaganda tapes and even hosting an online question and answer session. Zawahiri has been a major advocate of continued attacks against the West.

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


Saif al Adel

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.

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 bin Laden


Sa’ad bin Laden.

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


Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and al Qaeda’s Brigade 313.

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 Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-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 Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, an al Qaeda-linked terror group that operates in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-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.

For more information on Ilyas Kashmiri and Brigade 313, see LWJ reports, Al Qaeda Brigade 313 website goes online, and US adds Ilyas Kashmiri to list of designated terrorists

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.


  • Stefan says:

    It is safe to say that Ayman al-Zawahiri will be the next figurehead of al-Qaeda. He was the co-founder, and he still maintains a great deal of political weight in the organization. However, a younger and more dynamic operative will take over the operational and tactical side of the operation. Osama bin Laden will be marketed and promoted as a “martyr” by al-Qaeda’s propaganda wing to jihadi forums and the world media. Contingency plans have been in place for a number of years.

  • Brian says:

    Off Topic – but my bet is that the fourth picture in the Reuters slideshow of the aftermath of the raid is Hamza Bin Laden. Looks like his father.

  • Bungo says:

    I predict Zawahiri will NOT assume the leadership of Anything. This man is now the most radioactive person in the world. No Jihadist in his right mind would have anything to do with him, be it any type of communication, personal meeting or even a light lunch. Everyone knows (including AZ himself) that at ANY moment a hail of missiles could rain down on his head killing everything in a 300 meter radius. This guy is DONE as far as any threat to anybody except his wife/wives.

  • sanman says:

    If I were AlQaeda, I would have more of my members hide out in Pakistan in the tribal areas. Because now Pakistan is under increasing pressure domestically to prevent any further US incursions.
    What I’d also probably do, is to set a trap for any potential US strike team. I’d let it be known that some juicy target was staying at a certain urban location – which of course he’d be nowhere near – while leaving fake clues to back up this conclusion. Then I’d station some of my best fighters inconspicuously in the area, and when the US strike team shows up, ambush them and give them a Blackhawk Down.
    This has been done before, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Taliban and AlQaeda guys aren’t amateurs.
    Technological band-aids (drones) and tactical band-aids (SpecOps) are no substitute for a winning strategy, which the US conspicuously lacks. Drones and SpecOps are good things to use, but relying totally on them is a recipe for disaster.
    Pakistan holds all or nearly all the cards, because the US has allowed it to. Unless and until the US can demonstrate to the Pakistanis that it’s not at their mercy, then expect them to cockily engage in all sorts of duplicity – like hiding Bin Laden and other AlQaeda in safehouses.

  • kaveh says:

    Alqaeda hate the persians.they know iranian as infidel or zoroastrian.I do not know what are they doing in iran.they believe that persians must die.but if it is true(to be some of the alqaeda members in iran),shows that the evil goverment of iran can match with every one.even the enemy of its people.resemblance and goal of two group is to be a persian,we hope alqaeda and islamic republic go to hell.

  • cm says:

    What about Ilyas Kashmiri? There was alot of chatter about him late last 2010/early 2011.

  • Villiger says:

    Kaveh, well said!

    cm, then they would really have the top-dog-terrorist Made in Pakistan!
    Only, i don’t now if this heathen knows any Arabic beyond a handful of mumbo-jumbo verses.
    Or maybe Pasha can be a candidate, he may be looking for a job soon. That’ll flatten the structure by a rung.

  • Icarus says:

    RIYADH: US troops were led to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by his own deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, because of a simmering internal power struggle, a Saudi newspaper reported on Thursday.
    Al-Watan newspaper, quoting an unnamed “regional source,” said the top two Al-Qaeda men had differences and that a courier who led US forces to bin Laden was working for Zawahiri.
    The courier was a Pakistan national and not a Kuwaiti as the US suspected, Al-Watan said. The man knew he was being followed by the US military but disguised the fact.
    “The Egyptian faction of Al-Qaeda is defacto running the organisation now and since he was taken ill in 2004 they have been trying to take full control,”
    according to the paper.
    It said Zawahiri’s faction had persuaded bin Laden to leave tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border and take shelter instead in Abbottabad near Islamabad where he was finally killed by US commandos on Monday.
    With the return of an Egyptian figure in Al-Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, last autumn from Iran, the Egyptian faction had hatched a plan to dispose of Saudi-born bin Laden, according to Al-Watan. (AFP)

  • James Lee says:

    I thought Usama (or Osama) bin Laden died of renal failure long time ago? And the people whom they killed were the ones who photoshopped Barack Obama’s supposedly Hawaiian long form birth certificate. 🙂

  • Tim says:

    I thought Saad bin Laden was killed in an airstrike in 2009?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    That was never confirmed and jihadis who know him denied the reports. AQ never released a martyrdom statement either.

  • Yonus Qanuni says:

    An interresting debate, that only time will show the answer to. None the less, it must be assessed that Bin Laden played a vital role as a legend among young jihadist, but from my point of view the question is rather how much influence he really had on the operations during the last years?
    My guess would be, that Osamas role was allmost merely ceremonial and as an invoker and moralist. It would have been very risky for any group to have direct affiliations with Bin Ladens. AQ is notoriously known for having little independent cells, and their lust and eager to engage in terrorist activities has probably only increased after the 2nd of May. So whoever the new leader might be, he isn’t gonna change much on the idelogical aspects of AQ – maybe only change it for the worse.


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