WASHINGTON (AFP) ― The United States on Thursday dismissed new al-Qaida supremo Ayman al-Zawahiri as a pale imitation of Osama bin Laden and warned the Egyptian to expect a similar fate to his slain predecessor.
U.S. officials painted the 59-year-old long-time No. 2 as an “armchair general” with no combat experience, saying he not only lacked charisma and leadership skills but was also a divisive figure who could fracture al-Qaida.
Top U.S. military officer Admiral Mike Mullen told Zawahiri to expect the same treatment meted out to bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. commandos in the dead of night in a May 2 raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
“As we did both seek to capture and kill ― and succeed in killing ― bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahiri,” said Mullen, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, giving his valedictory press briefing at the Pentagon, could barely disguise his scorn, but warned that the announcement should serve as a reminder of the continuing al-Qaida threat.
“First of all I think we should be mindful that this announcement by al-Qaida reminds us that despite having suffered a huge loss ... Al-Qaida seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed, and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them.”
But Gates, who joked that it was “probably tough to count votes when you’re in a cave,” said Zawahiri faced “some challenges.”
“Bin Laden has been the leader of al-Qaida essentially since its inception,” he said. “In that particular context he had a peculiar charisma that I think Zawahiri does not have. I think he was much more operationally engaged than we have the sense Zawahiri has been.”