Succession Battle Threatens to Split Al Qaeda

Reports highlight infighting over the terrorist network's new leader

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Al Qaeda is embroiled in a succession battle threatening to tear the terrorist network apart, according to independent reports. On Tuesday, CNN, Reuters, and a Pakistani newspaper reported that Al Qaeda had chosen a temporary replacement for Osama bin Laden named Saif al-Adel.  It was a controversial move, given that some Al Qaeda members insist that only a jihadist from the Arabian Peninsula, an area that is holy to Muslims, should lead the group (al-Adel is Egyptian, and formerly served as a Special Forces officer in Egypt). Making matters worse, CBS News, citing a senior Taliban source and Pakistani officials, sheds doubt on whether al-Adel would ever be accepted as Al Qaeda's leader, even for an interim position. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here's a run-through the major challenges facing Al Qaeda in its post-bin Laden scramble:

  • The succession  Most national security experts agree that the permanent successor of Osama bin Laden will be Ayman Al-Zawahiri. According to reports, it is al-Adel's role to midwife that process, getting Al Qaeda affiliates from around the globe to swear an oath to Al- Zawahiri. But CBS's sources are so doubtful of al-Adel's stature, they question the credibility of yesterday's reports that he's succeeding on even a temporary level. "Saif al-Adel is far away from such responsibility," a senior Taliban source, with 15-years of experience working with al Qaeda, told CBS News. "Al Qaeda definitely needs more time to come out from the trauma of Osama bin Laden's death." CBS's terrorism consultant Jere Van Dyk notes that what Al Qaeda needs now is a leader who will hide the group amongst locals in the tribal areas--something al-Adel isn't skilled at. "How can al-Adel, without having the cultural, linguistic and tribal backing, make his way back from Iran and establish himself?" Van Dyk asks.
  • Infighting  Even if al-Adel's main goal is to pave the way for Al-Zawahiri's succession, his recent appointment suggests a rift in the terrorist network, reports The Guardian's Jason Burke. "Senior al-Qaida-affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Yemen have already pledged their support for al-Zawahiri, who is 59 and among the oldest contenders for the top position, and may not accept the leadership of al-Adel, even as an interim measure." The Christian Science Monitor adds that, in some circles, Al-Zawahiri is a divisive figure who lacks charisma. "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," writes the news service. "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."
  • Relevance  The network has somewhat lost its foothold in the world following the Arab Spring uprisings. "It must seek to redefine itself in a Muslim world where the power of peaceful protest has proven infinitely more effective than suicide bombings," writes CBS's Tucker Reals. "Those sweeping and sudden changes ... which have seen long-time autocrats toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, and currently threaten the regimes in Yemen, Syria and Libya, are magnifying al Qaeda's already serious identity crisis."
  • Snitches?  "The group must figure out how to try and plug the very obvious gaps in its internal security," adds Reals.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.