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.
"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."
Zawahari was among the militants imprisoned in connection with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
U.S. authorities say he helped plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
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.
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.