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Post-Laden, al Qaeda affiliates poised to produce new leaders

world Updated: Jul 06, 2011 11:46 IST
Sudarsan Raghavan

With the death of Osama bin Laden, the future of al Qaeda remains murky facing a potential contest for the network's leadership between leaders of the group's old guard and those heading newer, ambitious franchises in Africa and the Middle East, according to experts.

Initially, bin Laden's death means that he will probably be replaced at the helm of al Qaeda by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who has long served as his deputy. Although Zawahiri has also been in the hiding for the past decade, he has been the most visible face and voice of al Qaeda.

Zawahiri, however, is considered a polarising figure within the top circles of al Qaeda and has long antagonised Islamic radicals from other factions. US counter-terrorism officials predicted he would have a much tougher time preserving unity within al Qaeda and attracting new followers.

Among other potential leaders are charismatic figures who head al Qaeda affiliates in places such as Yemen that are now regarded as even more dangerous than the one led by al Qaeda's central command.

Over the past two years, the boldest attempted terrorist attacks have been carried out from Yemen, by a group whose leaders include the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi.“Bin Laden leaves behind a number of groups that have been deeply influenced by him. He has built a movement that will outlast him,'' said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

In certain parts of the Arab world, post-September 11 enthusiasm for bin Laden and his ideologies has clearly subsided.

Nevertheless, bin Laden nurtured a constellation of al Qaeda franchises stretching from Africa to the Middle East, and linked by ideology and allegiance to his core values and tactics. Such franchises, say terrorism experts, was part of a grand plan by Laden to enlarge al Qaeda's reach and leave a self-sustaining legacy.

Such affiliates received little, if any, financial and material support from al Qaeda's central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They operated independently, conducting their own fundraising, recruitment and strategies. Often, bin Laden and his associates would step in to offer rhetorical and theological encouragement.

Yemen, in particular, is likely to become a prominent refuge and operational arena for al Qaeda loyalists, possibly creating an even bigger challenge for the Obama administration. In Somalia, al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab is seeking to overthrow the struggling US-backed transitional government and turn the region into a Taliban-like Islamic emirate.

In an exclusive partnership with the Washington Post