Al-Qaeda has today announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri has been appointed as the group’s leader following the death of Osama bin Laden at the start of May. The news was announced by the group through Arabic-language jihadist web forums.

Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam who was a close associate of Zawahiri between the early 1990s and 2000, said:

‘The appointment of Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda is not a surprise. Zawahiri has always been the obvious successor to Osama bin Laden and no-one else in al-Qaeda has the knowledge, experience and range of contacts that he has. His appointment as leader is the natural move by al-Qaeda.

‘However it is surprising that al-Qaeda took such a long time to announce Zawahiri as the group’s new leader. This is a sign that there may have been disputes and conflicts within al-Qaeda, including over his leadership, that Zawahiri needed to resolve before formally taking over.

‘Zawahiri’s first step as leader will be to try to decontaminate the group’s reputation among Muslims. Ever since the Iraq war, al-Qaeda has been mistrusted by many Muslims and even by other hardline Islamist groups for its killing of Muslim civilians. Zawahiri’s first priority will be to restore the al-Qaeda brand.

‘Zawahiri will also try to re-position al-Qaeda in Middle East in order to take advantage of the region’s pro-democracy uprisings. After being initially surprised by the uprisings, al-Qaeda is now seeing the changes in the Arab world as an opportunity to reassert itself in key countries such as Egypt. As a result we should not be surprised if al-Qaeda tries to adopt a more intellectual and political tone and to try to move away from being seen as a purely terrorist organisation.’

Quilliam’s recent briefing, ‘The coming struggle within al-Qaeda’, discusses the challenges that Zawahiri will face as al-Qaeda leader. This briefing can be downloaded as a PDF here.

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