CAIRO — With Osama bin Laden dead, U.S. authorities are training their sights on his top deputy, an Egyptian surgeon-turned-jihadist whose tactical acumen will be tested as al Qaida struggles to regroup.
The U.S. government has a $25 million bounty on Ayman al Zawahiri, 59, who's presumed to be bin Laden's successor — though al Qaida has yet to make a public announcement since U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan early Monday and shot bin Laden dead.
Political analysts say Zawahiri faces his biggest challenge yet: finding a way to restore al Qaida's relevance to Muslim causes while at the same time evading capture as the FBI's new most-wanted terrorist.
Most students of militant groups believe Zawahiri has been the de facto leader of al Qaida for the past several years while the bigger target — bin Laden — was on the run.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Bin Laden was the symbol and the more charismatic figure, but Ayman Zawahiri was the executive and the real leader," said Hossam Tammam, an Egyptian university professor who studies militant groups and has written extensively on the subject. "He was the deeper and more effective leader of al Qaida and, if nothing exceptional like his death or severe illness happens, Zawahiri will head the network."
Zawahiri, whose militancy was hardened in brutal Egyptian prisons, comes across as dour and charmless in his many videos and audiotapes of the past several years. But what Zawahiri lacks in the charm department, he makes up for with a nimble mind that's helped al Qaida evolve into a global franchise operation with self-proclaimed members acting independently or with little direction from the official leadership.
Born into a prominent family of doctors, clerics and academics in the upscale Cairo district of Maadi, Zawahiri was only 15 when he formed his first underground cell devoted to overthrowing the government and creating an Islamist state, according to an exhaustive account of his early life in Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
From an early age, according to Wright, Zawahiri demonstrated "personal fearlessness, his self-righteousness, and his total conviction of the truth of his own beliefs — headstrong qualities that would invariably be associated with him and that would propel him into conflict with nearly everyone he would meet."
Zawahari was among the militants imprisoned in connection with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. After his release, Zawahiri participated in the Egyptian Islamist uprising of the 1990s, which the now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak crushed. Zawahiri moved to Pakistan, where in about 1998 his exiled militant group Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined forces with bin Laden in what would become al Qaida.
U.S. authorities say he helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Zawahiri is still at large, believed to be hiding in the rugged terrain along the Afghan-Pakistan border, though Monday's assault on bin Laden's compound in a Pakistani military enclave, a two hour drive from the capital, shows that fugitive militants could be anywhere.
Location doesn't matter as much as the ability to control and spread al Qaida's message of violent resistance to the U.S. and its allies in the region, analysts said. In that, Zawahiri has experience.
"The real leader of al Qaida is Ayman Zawahiri. He's the executive leader, the one that runs the communications and planning for all the attacks. He mobilized al Qaida while Osama bin Laden was just the shimmering figure," said Montasser al Zayat, an Islamist attorney and onetime jailmate of Zawahiri's who wrote a scathing biography of the militant called, "Ayman al-Zawahiri As I Knew Him."
Al Qaida's message has faltered of late. The Arab Spring rebellions, instigated by frustrated citizens who chant "peaceful!" as they confront the bullets of government forces, have rendered al Qaida's violent jihad all but obsolete. Through protests and civil disobedience, ordinary Arabs have inflicted more damage to repressive regimes than al Qaida's explosives experts ever did.
Zawahiri already has tried to latch on to the momentum of the Arab uprisings, releasing an audio and video series of his musings on the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The series had a clunky title, "A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt," and by the time the videos were smuggled out of Zawahiri's hiding place and uploaded to the Internet, much of the content sounded passe in the Twitter-fast revolutions.
Zawahiri also didn't win many new followers by railing against the very idea of democracy, a goal for hundreds of thousands of Arab protesters who risked life and limb to stand up to their unelected rulers. Democracy, Zawahiri said in a recent recording, "means that sovereignty is to the desires of the majority, without committing to any quality, value or creed. A democratic state can only be secular," meaning nonreligious.
Experts who closely monitor the group say al Qaida's fugitive leaders might bypass Zawahiri and choose a successor who could better recruit a new generation of would-be jihadists — the ideal candidate would be fairly young, Internet savvy, and perhaps from an Arab state where a revolt is unfolding.
One possible contender is Anwar al Awlaki, 40, the Yemeni-American cleric who's known for his wildly popular online lectures, but who lacks the combat experience of Zawahiri's generation. Authorities suspect Awlaki of leading al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni group is called, and of instigating attacks against the U.S.
Perhaps as a nod to Awlaki's contributions to jihad, a Zawahari recording released last month ends with file footage of the Yemeni militant, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites.
Awlaki is believed to be in Yemen, where three months of rebellion against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left the regime on the brink of collapse. Saleh was considered an ally for U.S. counterterrorism agents, and the inevitably chaotic aftermath of his ouster could open space for al Qaida to operate.
"In Yemen, al Qaida is trying to keep a low profile and enable the opposition to succeed. But after the ouster of these regimes, al Qaida will come back and try to be part of the process," Anani, the Britain-based professor, said.
In Zawahiri's native Egypt, local newspapers noted bin Laden's death alongside reports on housing costs and Palestinian reconciliation — a markedly different take from the banner-headline American coverage. Egyptians have enough to sort out, local activists scoffed, without worrying about a grizzled, out-of-touch militant who left Cairo more than a decade ago.
"The real problem is that the region is full of repression that will lead to more violence," said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Egyptian columnist who focuses on Islamist affairs. "Regimes do not want to respect peaceful, democratic change. They continue to lead and compel people to turn to violence."
Al Qaida's militant message still resonates in some quarters of Egypt, however. Members of the ultraconservative Salafi movement, which adopts a literalist interpretation of Islam, plan a memorial service for bin Laden at a Cairo mosque Friday. To a minority of Egyptians, Zawahiri's nationality is a point of pride as he assumes the mantle of al Qaida leader.
"What do Osama or Zawahiri do? They have never been to the United States or the United Kingdom or the aggressive countries. They're just defending our nations against the aggressors," said Sheikh Hafez Salama, a veteran Islamist fighter who wields enormous power in the Egyptian port city of Suez. "They're doing their duty and ours, and it's an honor that Zawahiri is Egyptian."
(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this story.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.