Wanted: Charismatic Terror Mastermind. Some Travel Required.

How will al Qaeda pick its new leader?

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

As speculation about al Qaeda’s leadership succession mounts in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, the answer to who will assume control next lies in the organization’s rules and regulations — like those of any good corporation. Written and reviewed by a group of senior leaders, some of whom may now be poised to assume new positions within al Qaeda, they provide insight into how this critical transition will be handled, and will factor heavily into who is selected to move up the leadership ladder.

Al Qaeda’s organizational protocols (some earlier versions of which are available at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) make clear that a chain of succession exists. In the event of the capture or death of al Qaeda’s emir (leader), power automatically transfers to the deputy emir (currently Ayman al-Zawahiri), with a executive council vote  to follow — confirming his permanent election to the position, or selecting another leader. If both the emir and his deputy are killed or captured, power temporarily goes to the head of the executive council (again with a vote following to confirm his leadership or select another member). The executive council is compromised of the emir and his deputy, as well as senior leaders from al Qaeda, usually those who head up a section in the organization, such as the military, security, or administration branches. It is a small body, probably now comprised of only a handful of members, although it once numbered around 10 when al Qaeda was safely ensconced in Afghanistan. It is from within this body that a new emir would be chosen if Zawahiri and his new deputy were to be killed or captured or otherwise deemed unfit to lead.

For good reason, al Qaeda has not pushed many of the leaders who hold these positions into the limelight. It has instead built its image around those already holding a public profile, while introducing some new second-generation leaders, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who are charismatic and can call others to join in the fight while defending the organization from criticism.

However, while the remaining first-generation figures may not exactly be household names, the United States now presumably has a wealth of new intelligence and operational notes garnered from bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. Already, U.S. intelligence assets will have compiled substantial information on senior figures and their possible locations, communications practices, and potentially, their operational taskings. But exploiting this information won’t be so easy. Following bin Laden’s capture, al Qaeda will have gone into communication lock down. The requirement of a vote electing Zawahiri to the leadership position, which requires risking communications at a particularly dangerous time, is thus likely to be dispensed with.

A formal announcement on the new leader from al Qaeda figures in Pakistan and Afghanistan may also take some time to materialize, if one comes at all. It is thus more likely that senior al Qaeda figures in other locations with historical ties to bin Laden and who have given him an oath of allegiance will be the first to release statements recognizing Zawahiri as the organization’s new leader. Recognition may come from Sayf al-Adl, who is believed to be the head of al Qaeda’s military council, and Abu Hafs al Mauritani, the former head of al Qaeda’s shariah council (both of whom are believed to be in Iran), or the emir of al Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula branch (AQAP), Nasir al-Wahishi, who reportedly served for a time as bin Laden’s personal secretary. The leaders of al Qaeda’s two franchises in the Maghreb and Iraq, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud and Abu Suleiman respectively, may also follow suit.

This would relieve the pressure on al Qaeda’s Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based leaders as they struggle to contain the fallout of bin Laden’s death, preserve their own safety, and maintain operational momentum. Although Adl and Mauritani may remain in Iran, it is still possible that they may assume a more active leadership position, either as a deputy or as part of the executive council or its subsidiary bodies. Al Qaeda’s councils have operated virtually since late 2001, when the organization took flight from Afghanistan and its senior leadership dispersed; any votes or oaths of allegiance to an emir can be given by proxy to other senior figures or communicated to the leadership via courier. In the case of oaths, a public statement is allowed. But it is important to note that membership oaths are to the position of emir, not to the person himself. After bin Laden’s death, these pledges of allegiance have automatically passed to Zawahiri — at least in the interim, and it is likely they will be more formally reaffirmed in the coming weeks and months.

It’s tempting to speculate about rivalry, infighting, splinter groups emerging or a more youthful leader taking the reins, but for now unity will prevail: Al Qaeda’s primary interest is in surviving and moving forward in the wake of its leader’s killing. While Zawahiri may not be the most well liked or magnetic figure within al Qaeda, he has served as No. 2 for over a decade, and substituted for bin Laden in not only approving and coordinating larger-scale attacks but also in dealing with its franchises. He is known and trusted, and loyalty to the emir is heavily emphasized within many militant Salafist groups, including al Qaeda. These factors will count far more in the short term than any of Zawahiri’s negative character traits or disagreements over the organization’s long-term direction.

It’s also tempting to identify others who may have designs on the leadership: Abu Yahya al-Libi and Atiyah abd al-Rahman, both Libyans who have risen in al Qaeda’s ranks in recent years and featured heavily in its propaganda productions, or Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born radical cleric whose appeal to English-speaking converts is particularly potent, have often been referred to as the rising stars of al Qaeda. Awlaki is a nonstarter. He’s not a member of the core al Qaeda organization and has no historical links to bin Laden. He’s also a relative newcomer to AQAP, and his formal affiliation and/or degree of seniority is also unclear. Most importantly, he lacks military experience and stature within the broader Arabic-speaking militant milieu.

As for the Libyan rising stars, or any other potential leadership contenders within al Qaeda, it is doubtful they have shown designs on the position of emir, Indeed, a key aspect governing the selection of the emirs of all ranks is the specification that those who "seek authority" or are "anxious to be an emir" should not be appointed to these positions.

So, for the short term, and for as long as he can avoid death or capture, Zawahiri will be the emir of al Qaeda. But who will be his deputy? It’s possible that operational security restrictions may mean that one is not appointed immediately. This would represent a key vulnerability for al Qaeda’s leadership. If the intelligence garnered from bin Laden’s compound results in a domino effect — perhaps with the killing or capture of Zawahiri and a number of other senior figures — the picture could be a lot murkier at the top of the al Qaeda food chain.

Here the United States may find that its aerial strikes in Pakistan have never been more useful. With even more limited communications between al Qaeda figures, aerial strikes will add to the confusion — al Qaeda’s followers and perhaps even its own members may find themselves unable to immediately confirm who remains alive and in charge. But this is still conjecture. We don’t yet know the scope of the intelligence haul or how long it will take to materialize into targeting operations.

The impetus on the United States, though, will be to act as quickly as possible to sow confusion and capitalize on the initiative it now has; likewise, al Qaeda will be going to ground immediately. In this respect, the status quo within al Qaeda will stand. As the new emir, Zawahiri and the leadership around him will likely attempt to continue business as usual and in doing so stamp their authority on the organization. The most visible and effective means of maintaining unity in the ranks will be to carry out more attacks on the West.

Al Qaeda’s external-operations section is the most compartmentalized within the organization, and thus may be able to maintain some operational momentum. However, should it be compromised, operatives who are already deployed to conduct attacks have the necessary permissions to move forward. AQAP also not only has the capacity to plan and conduct more attacks against the West, but already has the permissions from al Qaeda’s core leadership to operate beyond its own theater of operations and target the United States. A squeezing of the balloon effect is therefore likely in the short term.

However, Zawahiri is nothing if not determined. He’s also unlikely to want to relinquish his role in overseeing al Qaeda’s external operations. And his one known vulnerability, like bin Laden before him, is his chronic tendency to micromanage. This leaves him open to meeting the same violent end as his former boss, and the organization he now provisionally runs potentially in further disarray.

Leah Farrall is a former senior counter terrorism analyst with the Australian Federal Police and lecturer on terrorism and insurgency. She is author of the blog