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 long-time 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.