U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether al Qaeda's leadership council has convened to choose the group's next leader following the death of Osama bin Laden.
Government experts say that al Qaeda bylaws specify that bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, automatically becomes the interim leader. But there are no guarantees that other members of the organization will accept him.
Al Qaeda senior commanders pledged an oath of fealty known as "bayat" to bin Laden personally, but the oath "is not transferrable to anyone else, according to documents captured after the fall of the Taliban," said Mary Habeck, a former al Qaeda specialist on the White House National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.
Ms. Habeck added that "it is possible that the wording could be changed to say you are swearing loyalty to bin Laden and his successor in light of the successful drone attacks on other members of al Qaeda's senior leadership."
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said al Qaeda must "figure out if the transfer of power also means the transfer of direct loyalty, which will bring to the floor all of the tensions and fissures, especially among the senior leadership with Zawahiri. I doubt that all of them will want to pledge bayat to him."
The Asia Times newspaper reported last week that al Qaeda's leadership group, or "Shura Council," had met to choose the successor to bin Laden, who was killed in the early morning of May 2 in Pakistan.
The council at one point was estimated by U.S. intelligence agencies to have up to 30 members. It now is believed to be as few as 15 to 20, according to a senior counterterrorism official.
The Shura Council provided guidance to bin Laden. Two U.S. counterterrorism officials said it is not known whether al Qaeda could hold a council meeting remotely through the Internet or, if a face-to-face gathering is required, where it could be held.
So far, one al Qaeda affiliate has released a statement saying that Zawahiri, the former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is the interim al Qaeda leader. The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella for jihadist groups that includes what is left of al Qaeda in Iraq, issued the statement. Its leadership was devastated during the U.S. military surge of 2007 and 2008.
U.S. intelligence agencies are "looking closely for signs of succession," the senior counterterrorism official said Tuesday, noting that "I have to believe the goons are talking amongst themselves."
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, said he expects Zawahiri to hang on as leader of the organization.
"Right now, for this group, they accept that the most important thing is to survive, and for that reason people will fall in line behind Zawahiri," he said.
"Even if there were young turks who could step into a leadership role and take a stand, we have thinned out their ranks with the drone program. By default, there is really no one else."
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