The video of Ayman al-Zawahiri released on June 8 is most noteworthy for what he did not do. Despite being the official second-in-command of al-Qaeda, he did not declare, or even hint, that he is now the group’s official head. This indicates that Zawahiri is fearful of creating a fissure by asserting his authority, aware that the rank-and-file is not united behind him. It also means that the top leadership has been unable to communicate to decide on a successor, allowing contradictory reports that Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, or Hamza bin Laden have taken the helm to spread confusion.
On June 9, a video apparently from al-Qaeda’s media arm made its way onto a jihadist forum. The tape announced that Hamza bin Laden, at only 21 years of age, was the new al-Qaeda chief. It was then deleted. He made his debut in a video in 2005 showing a battle between Pakistani forces and jihadists. An associate of Osama said in 2008 that Hamza was being groomed to replace his father. His escape from his father’s compound on May 1 is the type of story that jihadists crave in a leader. However, experienced terrorists won’t be enthusiastic about being led by a 21-year old who only became their leader because of his last name.
At the same time, there is a report that Zawahiri has taken over. Dutch intelligence documents detail a meeting held in Kuram, Pakistan, on May 9 based on the testimony of local informants. Zawahiri is said to have agreed to become the leader after Saad bin Laden rebuffed his suggestion that he replace his father. The main problem with this story is that Saad is believed to have been killed in a drone strike in 2009. It is also hard to imagine that there is an informant that deep inside al-Qaeda’s inner circle.
Al-Qaeda has a difficult decision with regards to Zawahiri. If he is not chosen as bin Laden’s successor, it will be the ultimate insult and will expose a division within the group. On the other hand, his choosing could intensify these divisions. The mere fact that al-Qaeda’s affiliates, with the exception of al-Qaeda in Iraq, have not reflexively endorsed him shows apprehension. “It is of course an anathema for al-Qaeda to hold free and fair elections, but if such elections were held, al-Zawahiri would most likely have a fight on his hands,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official.
Then there are the reports that Saif al-Adel has been designated the interim head of al-Qaeda. The very term, “interim head,” shows disarray. This was originally reported by Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist who says he has access to senior members of al-Qaeda. It appeared on a jihadist forum around the same time, but it was immediately removed because the administrators felt only an announcement from a known al-Qaeda outlet should be believed. A Pakistani newspaper also reported it. There has been no official response from the terrorist group in response to the rumor.