Mazhar Ali Khan, File, Associated Press
BAGHDAD — A week after the death of Osama bin Laden, his longtime deputy is considered the front-runner to succeed the iconic al-Qaida founder. But uprisings in the Middle East and changing dynamics within the group could point to another scenario: a decision not to appoint anyone at all to replace the world's most-wanted terrorist.
Replacing bin Laden, who founded al-Qaida more than two decades ago and masterminded 9/11, may be no easy task. Analysts say the choice will likely depend on how the terror organization views its goals and priorities in the post-bin Laden age.
The revolt across the Arab world over the past few months was driven by aspirations for Western-style democracy, not the al-Qaida goal of a religiously led state spanning the Muslim world. And as al-Qaida struggles to prove its relevance, the group has become increasingly decentralized and prone to internal disputes.
"You almost have to start with the question of 'Can he be replaced?' said Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, the director of the West Point, N.Y.,-based Countering Terrorism Center.
Whether al-Qaida "even need name an 'official' new leader is uncertain," wrote Rita Katz and Josh Devon in a report by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist web traffic. "So long as the group can continue to issue messages ... the group will remain a guiding light for the global jihadist community."
If al-Qaida does pick a successor, Sawyer and other analysts said Ayman al-Zawahri, 59, is the most likely choice because he was bin Laden's longtime deputy and has far more experience than younger candidates.
Few may want to challenge him openly for the top spot, analysts said.
"If he is passed over for someone else, it tells me that al-Qaida has already splintered," said Fawaz Gerges, an al-Qaida scholar at the London School of Economics.
Al-Zawahri is an Egyptian doctor who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan. He founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was dedicated to overthrowing Hosni Mubarak's government, before merging his group with al-Qaida.
But al-Zawahri lacks bin Laden's personal appeal, and some members of al-Qaida have found him a controlling micromanager, said a senior U.S. intelligence official who briefed reporters in Washington.
"There are strong indications that he is not popular within certain circles of the group. So I believe it's an open question as to who will take over," said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive issues frankly.
One possible challenger is Abu Yahia al-Libi, a Libyan who serves as al-Qaida's Afghanistan commander. Al-Libi, an Islamic scholar, escaped from the U.S.'s Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2005 and began appearing in videos released by the terror group.
Another possibility is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who was indicted by the U.S. for his role in the Aug. 7, 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people. But his close ties with al-Zawahri and lack of religious credentials make him unlikely to lead the group.
Other militants better known in the West, such as Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar or American-born Adam Gadahn, known as Azzam al-Amriki, stand no chance. Mullah Omar was never a member of al-Qaida, and Gadahn lacks stature within the movement.
Another well-known name, U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is considered a long-shot at best. Al-Awlaki, who is based in Yemen, is one of the most prominent English-language radical clerics whose sermons have influenced militants involved in attacks or attempted attacks on American soil. But his lack of operational experience and the fact that he's not even the top leader in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula argue against him.
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