Osama bin Laden’s longtime top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has assumed command of al Qaeda, and a website associated with the terrorist group is calling on “lone wolf” agents to target and kill 40 prominent Americans at their homes in the U.S.
The list prompted the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to issue an intelligence bulletin to law enforcement agencies nationwide and to notify the U.S. officials, business and political leaders, think tank executives and defense contractors targeted on the “hit list.”
On Thursday, jihadist websites declared al-Zawahri’s promotion and promised to continue attacks on the United States, Israel and other countries that support them, prompting the top U.S. military officer to vow that al-Zawahri will be captured or killed like bin Laden.
“We seek with the aid of God to call for the religion of truth and incite our nation to fight by carrying out jihad against the apostate invaders with their head being crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them,” said the statement by al-Zawahri, as translated by the Al-Jazeera news agency.
An Egyptian surgeon, al-Zawahri brokered the June 2001 merger of al Qaeda and his own terror group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
As the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda, al-Zawahri helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks and was responsible for the terrorist group’s contingency plans after the attacks and for arranging safe haven for the group’s leaders in Pakistan and Iran.
In addition, he is suspected of planning the suicide bombing of Egypt’s embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 1995 and of helping plan the attack that killed 67 foreign tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in 1997.
“He and his organization are still threatening us, and as we did both seek to capture and kill — and succeed in killing — bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri,” said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The website Ansar al-Mujahideen recently posted the hit list, which included a video message by Adam Gadahn, al Qaeda’s chief spokesman, calling for jihadists — including local jihadist “lone wolfs” in the United States — to take up arms against Americans, said an FBI official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In his video message, Gadahn explains how easy it is to buy a gun in the United States and portrays Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas in November 2009, as a hero.
The hit list, first reported by NBC New York, includes photos of the suggested victims. The FBI has declined to comment. The bureau’s notification to law enforcement agencies contained the advisory that the information was “aspirational,” adding that it did not know whether the threats would “progress beyond these discussion forums.”
Al-Zawahri takes control of al Qaeda as it mourns the loss of bin Laden, its inspirational leader and operational commander, who was killed in a May 2 raid by Navy SEALs at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In recent years, al-Zawahri, 59, has emerged as the chief ideologue and mouthpiece for al Qaeda, having made far more video and audio recordings than bin Laden and offering the group’s official view on developments in the region, including the war in Somalia and the revolution in Egypt.
But U.S. intelligence officials long have regarded al-Zawahri as a micromanager and suspected that he is disliked by many al Qaeda operatives who pledged personal loyalty to bin Laden.
“The No. 2, Zawahri, is not charismatic,” John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said at a May 2 news conference about the bin Laden raid. “He has not been — was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan, so — and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. And I think you’re going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more.”
Al-Zawahri tried and failed to bring the Egyptian Islamic Group, which was responsible for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, into al Qaeda in 2001. Documents captured from terrorist organizations disclose that leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Group rejected al-Zawahri’s pleas for them to join bin Laden’s ranks.
“I am very pleased by al Qaeda’s choice to replace bin Laden with Ayman Zawahri,” said Mary Habeck, a former specialist on political Islam for the National Security Council.
“Zawahri has neither the strategic vision nor the organizational and people skills that bin Laden had. He has alienated many people in the jihadist movement, including a large number of Egyptian radicals,” said Ms. Habeck, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Bruce Hoffman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University, agreed that al-Zawahri lacks bin Laden’s charisma. But he said the new al Qaeda chief is also tougher than his predecessor in key ways.
“He formed his first terrorist cell as a teenager, graduated to the abject conditions of Egyptian prisons and lost his wife and son in a U.S. airstrike in November 2001,” Mr. Hoffman said. “For him, this struggle is both more personal and visceral, as well as political and religious. Zawahri mapped out al Qaeda’s strategy of survival in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and will now have sole responsibility for implementing it.”
The selection of al-Zawahri could suggest a larger shift in the group’s leadership away from its Saudi faction. Al Qaeda in some ways represents the merger of Gulf Arab and Egyptian radical Islam.
Bin Laden was a Saudi whose family came from Yemen. Al-Zawahri is an Egyptian and a follower of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian essayist who developed much of the political theory employed to this day by al Qaeda.